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Not There Yet Despite advancing technology, accident avoidance will be slow to impact insurers

—October 01, 2013
Not There Yet Despite advancing technology, accident avoidance will be slow to impact insurers

By Greg Horn, VP of Industry Relations, Mitchell

In the past five years, we've seen reports from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of a year-over-year reduction in the number of vehicle-related fatalities in the United States.

Some in the automotive industry have credited these reductions (and reduced collisions overall) to state bans on texting and cellphone use while driving, and the increase in accident avoidance technology. Few questioned these conclusions until this year.

In recently released data, NHTSA showed the number of fatalities actually increased for the first time in five years to 34,080 despite more states adopting stringent hand-held phone bans while driving.

Equally counterintuitive is the fact that more vehicles on the road this year and last year are equipped with blind-spot warning systems and other technology aimed at reducing collisions.

So, what's going on here?

Let's first take a look at the state texting/hand-held device bans. Research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has found that in states where texting bans are in effect, there is no drop in the number of collisions; in fact in some instances accident frequency has actually increased. How can this be?

The answer may lie in the desire of drivers in states where bans are in effect to continue texting but to place the devices near their laps, rather than perched on the steering wheel, so as to avoid police detection. This practice increases the time that eyes are not on the road and actually worsens the driving distraction.

But shouldn't accident avoidance systems help reduce crashes? Accident avoidance technology is at its core either active or passive. Active means evasive actions like full braking or even steering will be done automatically without driver input. Passive means that an audio or visual warning of an impending hazard is the only action performed by the vehicle's technology.

Most of what we see on vehicles today is passive software. Backup cameras and blind-spot warning systems are good examples of passive systems and far-from-foolproof technology. For example, backup cameras are quite handy, but lack the ability to scan wide areas to the side of a backing vehicle. That's why most of these systems come with a warning on the screen to "check the surrounding area" to avoid collisions with vehicles coming from the side.

Also, the cameras often are in areas that are susceptible to road grime, which reduces the clarity of the image delivered. (One engineer, speaking about the shortcomings of backup cameras, quipped that "it gives you a great view of what you just hit.") Next to backup cameras, blind-spot warning systems are the most common accident avoidance systems found on vehicles today. The technology is in place on everything from SUVs and minivans to luxury vehicles. But the systems are fraught with annoying false alarms; many dealer service writers say they are the most common items that vehicle owners want to disable.

Active systems actually autonomously apply the brakes if the driver does not react in time. Data from the U.K.'s Thatcham Research Centre show an impressive 27% reduction in rear-end-accident frequency. Legislators in the European Union apparently believe the active systems are effective; they're requiring all vehicles sold in the European Union to have autonomous braking by 2014.

With one in 10 vehicles sold in the United States having a European nameplate, this legislation could have implications for American drivers, since European vehicles bound for the states likely will include the active system technology. An important mitigating factor here, however, is that the best-selling European vehicles sold in the United States are assembled outside of Europe. Mercedes, BMW and Volkswagen all have U.S. assembly facilities and likely won't be installing the technology in vehicles for the U.S. market.

Radar, Lasers Coming Next

Next-generation technology like that used in Nissan's Autonomous Emergency Steering System and Volvo's City Safety low-speed crash avoidance system do exactly what their names imply. Cameras and a combination of radar and laser scanners paint a constantly evolving picture of the car's surroundings. An onboard computer processes the data, continuously searching for potential accidents and for safe, obstruction-free escape paths.

When an accident is imminent and the computer determines that collision is unavoidable by braking alone, the motor in the electric-assist power steering rack acts on its own with no input from the driver. If a Nissan or Volvo driver has a firm grip on the wheel, the resistance will be enough to override the autonomous avoidance maneuver. Because both the Volvo and Nissan systems rely on scanners and cameras, cleanliness of the lenses is of utmost importance for the systems to work properly. And, the angle of the sun shining on the sensors can cause the systems to fail. (To see an example of how the sun can affect the system, type "Volvo crash fail" into a search engine to watch an affected test).

In addition to the technology glitches, the second factor minimizing the impact of accident avoidance systems is the slow integration into the U.S. vehicle fleet. Looking back, it took more than 12 years for dual airbags to impact claims severity--and that technology was required. Accident avoidance technology is not.

Consider, too, that the average age of a vehicle on the road in the United States is now 11 years old, showing that despite robust annual sales of nearly 16 million new vehicles, Americans aren't replacing a large percent of the 239 million vehicles registered in the United States. Another point to consider is that most of the current avoidance technology is an option and part of a more expensive package of options that can add $2,500 or more to a vehicle's price tag.

In the short term, accident avoidance technology won't have much of an impact on the reduction of accident frequency or severity. It is simply too infrequent in the fleet and because there is no federal mandate, there won't be a ramping up of volume any time soon. For now, accident avoidance will remain the responsibility of the driver, and subject to human error.

Published in Best’s Review, October 2013

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