Autonomous or “driverless” cars generate a lot of media buzz because of the public’s fascination with new technology and what vehicles may be like in the future. Yet, there’s a revolution underway that is changing vehicles right now that has more immediate implications for drivers and for insurers than autonomous cars do. Increasingly, vehicles are equipped with advanced safety technologies that Institute research shows are preventing some kinds of common crashes.
Crash Avoidance Technology
As with any new technology, crash avoidance systems started out as options on a few luxury models and have steadily spread to more of the fleet. The goal is to assist the driver with a warning or even automatic braking to help avoid or mitigate a crash. Systems include front crash prevention, lane departure warning, blind spot detection, adaptive headlights, park assist and back-over prevention. Advances also are being made in intelligent transportation systems that allow vehicles to communicate with one another or with road infrastructure to help avoid crashes.
The Institute’s long-running crash test program has helped drive major improvements in how well vehicles protect people when crashes happen. Crash avoidance technology promises to prevent many crashes from happening altogether. So far, Institute research shows significant benefits from front crash prevention features such as forward collision warning and automatic braking.
Front crash prevention systems use various types of sensors, such as cameras or radar, to detect when a vehicle is getting too close to the one in front of it. Most systems issue a warning and precharge the brakes to maximize their effect if the driver responds by braking. Many systems can brake the vehicle autonomously if the driver doesn’t respond. The aim of the technology is to either prevent the crash if possible, or at least reduce its severity.
This technology is working on the road. Institute research finds that automatic braking systems are reducing property damage liability claims by around 14 percent. The systems are typically optional, often included in technology or safety packages with other features. Volvo is a step ahead of many of its competitors, making its auto-brake system called City Safety, which operates at low-speeds, a standard feature across its product line.
Forward collision warning systems, without auto-brake, also are reducing crashes, but the effect typically isn’t as large. Systems without auto-brake probably have more modest benefits because they rely on drivers to respond appropriately to the warning and can’t directly avoid crashes.
We’re also seeing crash reductions with adaptive headlights, which are designed to pivot with steering wheel input to help drivers see better on dark, curved roads. When researchers looked at adaptive headlights offered by Mazda, Mercedes and Volvo, they found property damage liability claims fell as much as 10 percent. That’s surprising because only a small percentage of multiple-vehicle, nighttime crashes occur on curves, where adaptive headlights would have an effect.
To help better understand how various crash avoidance systems are working, insurers have embarked on an exciting, $30 million project to expand the Institute’s Vehicle Research Center (VRC) facility near Charlottesville, Va., to enable researchers to undertake more rigorous scientific evaluations of these technologies. Work is nearly completed on a 300-by-700 foot covered track where engineers will evaluate vehicle-based systems year-round using robotic targets and vehicle controllers. An existing outdoor track has already been expanded to conduct higher speed maneuvers than were possible before.
Fully “driverless” cars are a long way off, but the technologies that are the building blocks for the vehicles of the future are on the road right now. The insurance industry, through the research of the Institute, will help drive the spread of crash avoidance technologies.
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