Published August 28, 2012
By Jeff Cobb
A growing number of new vehicles – be they alternative energy powered or not – are making advanced crash avoidance technologies available and the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) is encouraged by this.
In fact, the IIHS is actively encouraging their adaptation through several ongoing efforts, including its new interactive Web page for consumers to browse and see whether the car they might be getting has such features as forward collision avoidance, adaptive headlights, lane departure warning, or blind spot protection.
We last wrote about these features and researchers' findings in July which you can scan here. Or, in very simplified terms for your review, these advanced automotive technologies are computer aided features to help keep the vehicle in control, and prevent accidents.
Researchers are finding that in today’s frenetic world where it seems tailgating has somehow become socially acceptable, and multi-tasking behind the wheel compounds already big-enough problems of driver incompetence or carelessness, the electronic aids may prove handy – as in lifesaving handy.
The IIHS, and the affiliated Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) have been studying these issues and providing info for both automakers and consumers to take heed – and the IIHS hopes – to positively act upon.
Looking at Volvos equipped with the City Safety System – or if you want to discuss hybrids, Toyota does make forward collision avoidance optionally available on some models – the HLDI says the technology is working to prevent about a quarter of the common low-speed crashes that happen in everyday commuter traffic.
If this sounds like a good thing, tell your manufacturer of choice you’d pay for it if it’s not already available, although buyer beware, there are varying systems out there. The IIHS says Volvo’s setup appears to be the most effective it has thus far studied.
"This is our first real-world look at an advanced crash avoidance technology, and the findings are encouraging," said Adrian Lund, president of HLDI. "City Safety is helping XC60 drivers avoid the kinds of front-to-rear, low-speed crashes that frequently happen on congested roads."
The Case For Advanced Electronic Safety
Citing such benefits as reduced auto insurance claims, the insurance Institute is not surprisingly a growing fan of electronic driver aids – which are also pejoratively known as electronic “nannies” to those who think they can handle their cars without computers watching out for them so much.
Alluding to possible consumer resistance, we asked the IIHS even if a computer is faster than the most skilled driver with razor-sharp reflexes and eyes in the back of the head, what about the law of unintended consequences? In other words, if other less careful drivers believe their cars will protect them from themselves, will that encourage them to be all the more careless?
“Good questions,” said IIHS spokesman Russ Rader yesterday to a set of reasoned queries we fired at him along these lines.
Short answer is, the jury is still out on the perverse possibilities given human psychology.
But the other short answer is either way, IIHS likes what it has seen so much it is doing what it can to sell automakers and car shoppers on the positive benefits of computer controlled nannies – which like any proper nanny, are there to serve good purposes.
“We don't intend to be subtle,” Rader said. “We are developing data so that we can recommend specific crash avoidance features and eventually add requirements that vehicles have certain features shown to be effective in order to claim the IIHS Top Safety Pick designation.”
Aha! So, if XYZ automaker a few years hence wants its whiz-bang new automobile to be considered for the IIHS Top Safety Pick – so it can advertise and sell more of them – IIHS is putting them on notice they’d do well to offer advanced safety features optionally, if not as standard equipment.
Of course the IIHS will do all this politely and with data to support it, and you can be sure the term "nanny" will not be used to describe said safety tech.
Actually, the IIHS is not quite where it wants to be yet, Rader said, but desires to give consumers as much information as possible about what it says it already knows from real-world studies, and what features they should consider buying now if they're in the market for a new vehicle.
Our other questions focused on whether the IIHS was excited about cars occasionally doing some critical thinking and driving tasks for potentially inattentive drivers because of increased cell phone usage, texting and what the U.S. DOT now calls a distracted driving epidemic?
“We think this technology is going to play a big role in addressing the distracted driving problem,” Rader said. “By the way, data do not show that America is ‘now’ experiencing a distracted driving epidemic; we've always had a distracted driving epidemic. It's not new and didn't appear because of cell phones or other electronic devices. We just keep inventing new ways to distract ourselves behind the wheel.”
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Didn’t some of you already know that? Do some of you remember such things as when German cars did not even come with so much in the way of possible distractions as cup holders – let alone Big Gulp sized ones – and back in the day, power window switch gear was not designed to be splash proof?
No, those were concessions sober Teutonic engineers were asked to make many moons back to cater to predilections expressed by their North American customers.
So while today U.S. policymakers have cued into cell phones and hand-held devices as leading causes for the distracted driving “epidemic” diagnosed for Americans, the IIHS says distraction is a pre-existing condition dating back as long as there’ve been fast-food drive-in windows and fussy kids to attend to.
“What also has changed is that we now have technology that could address distracted driving,” Rader said, “no matter the cause of the distraction, whether it's a phone call or spilled coffee, a bug flying through the window or the kids in the backseat.”
Yes, advanced safety technology looks promising. But coming back to our earlier query, Rader concedes the IIHS knows there will now be the chance that collision avoidance systems may aid and abet some drivers to take even greater chances.
“There is a risk that drivers could let themselves become more distracted if they are confident that the car will bail them out,” he said. “That's something researchers are going to watch.”
But the bottom line, Rader said, is “that the real-world results for crash avoidance technologies show a great deal of promise in addressing distracted driving.”
So there you have it. Consider yourself encouraged. Sort of.
Since fuel prices are deterring more Americans from armoring themselves inside as many two-and-a-half ton gas-guzzling trucks as they did not long ago, advanced safety tech may be on the rise to help save us from ourselves, or those with whom we share the road, as the case may be.