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This is the first in a series of articles on recent United States government regulations on vehicles and driver assist technologies
readily becoming available for the smarter driver.
If you’ve never heard of the acronyms
above, you’re about to learn quite a bunch. We’ll start with NHTSA. NHTSA stands for the National Highway Traffic Security Administration.
NHTSA is an agency of the executive branch of the United States government, and the biggest legal body on traffic and vehicular regulation.
These guys are the ones who research and regulate everything from how Americans drive on the road to how manufacturers process recalls
in the United States. Their mission: "Save lives, prevent injuries, reduce vehicle-related crashes."
Then there’s the IIHS, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The IIHS is not a government agency, instead it’s a non-profit,
with a mission that parallels that of the NHTSA. The IIHS is privately funded by auto insurers and is the one that does those cool
crash test safety tests and rates vehicles. You’ll often hear that a vehicle is an “IIHS Top Safety Pick”, or that a vehicle has won
an “IIHS Top Safety Pick Plus” award. The IIHS goes a step beyond the NHTSA and also reviews accessories such as booster seats for
children, and often puts out practical lists such as best used cars to buy for a new driver.
Together, the NHTSA and IIHS are the leading bodies of automotive research here in the United States and are often the standard by
which auto publications measure the “official” safety ratings and recommendations for new vehicles. American manufacturers such as
Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, often work very closely with these leading bodies when developing their new vehicles. European
vehicles are ranked and rated by them too, but European Union regulations are often higher, so compliance when imported into the United
States is no problem for them.
Now let’s talk about AEB. That stands for Auto Emergency
Braking. This is an umbrella term for technologies in new vehicles that has gone from novelty selling point to required safety feature.
Auto Emergency Braking is a technology which allows your car to stop or stop more quickly when the vehicle detects that you’re closing
in too quickly on the vehicle ahead, or that a hazard has entered your projected path. In the most basic forms, your vehicle detects
that you’re about to rear end the car in front of you and pre-charges the brakes and gives you an auditory or visual cue so that when
you step on the brake, your stopping distance is greatly reduced. In the most advanced forms, the vehicle will stop itself completely
without any input from the driver.
The technology was first introduced on a handful of
luxury cars as a premium feature and often cost a few thousand to add on. Just five years later (give or take a few), the technology
has trickled downmarket in some form to almost every manufacturer. Initially introduced to alert the distracted driver to an impending
collision, the technology has gotten more advanced, intelligent, and nuanced. To the point where the NHTSA has decided that by 2022,
in order to score the highest crash test rating, new vehicles will need to have the technology standard or available.
Now, you may be scoffing and rolling your eyes at the notion that we’ve gotten to the point where, due to distraction, disinterest,
or otherwise we need our cars to be able to alert us to and potentially brake for collisions that are clearly visible through our
windshield. However, before you start gagging, take this into consideration: There are impediments on the road that we, ourselves
can’t avoid: the driver who blows through a stop sign without looking, the driver who swerves into your lane, the biker who has no
regard for traffic flow, and the worst, the unsupervised child who doesn’t know better than to not step out into traffic.
Now, it’s true that, in any of the above scenarios, you could step on the brakes and pray that your car comes to a stop quickly enough
to avoid hitting the other vehicle, the biker, or the child. But sometimes, depending on the type of vehicle you’re driving, there
is too much mass and too much momentum for the vehicle to stop in the next ten feet. The larger the vehicle and the more load the
vehicle has, the longer it’ll take to stop, even with the best brakes.
That’s where emergency
braking comes in. On most systems, at the very least your brakes a pre-charged, meaning that they’re alerted to the situation and
are ready to clamp down really hard and really fast. This increases stopping distance and time exponentially, and unlike standard
braking, often ensures that your vehicle won’t be pushed forward in the event that the driver behind you rear-ends you, thus saving
the life of the kid who’s parent was texting and not paying attention. Sure, it was their fault, but at least in my home state of
California, in pedestrian fatalities, no matter the circumstance, the driver is always at fault.
advanced systems have “full-autonomous braking”. Here, the vehicle takes complete control of the situation, both pre-charging the
brakes and more importantly applying them in case you don’t get your foot down quick enough. In milliseconds, the vehicle’s computer
has already detected the impending collision, calculated the time and distance to impact, trajectory of both itself and the obstacle,
and determined the best course of action, stopping before you rear end the car in front of you or kill the biker that’s just swerved
in front of you. Humans aren’t yet capable of such analysis of a situation, distracted or not. In the most extreme of circumstances,
even if the driver is fully aware, it is highly unlikely that he would be able to mentally register the obstruction, move his foot
to the gas pedal, and stop the vehicle fast enough to avoid it.
This is why the IIHS and
the NHTSA have moved to make systems like this available to all car buyers, not just those buying expensive luxury cars. Automakers
are also embracing this technology, because it goes a long way to making their vehicles more attractive to buyers, especially those
who buy with a big consciousness toward safety.
A 2015 Consumer Reports poll showed
that new parents are more inclined to buy new versus late model used and much more likely to buy a vehicle that provides advanced
safety features. And with the technology readily available, more importantly affordable, on makes such as Honda, Toyota, Nissan, and
Ford; even those buying with a limited spending allowance can afford to equip their cars with the latest safety technology.
Now let’s dive in a little deeper and look at how it works and what you should be looking for when you’re out there doing your research
for a new car.
Auto Emergency Braking, in any form, uses the
same general setup. Some are more complex, but we’ll look at the typical system setup. Vehicles with AEB often use a camera or a few
cameras mounted in the vehicle’s windshield up around the rearview mirror. From inside, you might see a compact black box situated
behind the rearview mirror. On some, the cameras are readily visible from the outside, looking forward at you from inside the car.
Don’t worry, these aren’t recording you as you walk or drive by. They’re mainly transmitting a live video to a computer.
This video is analyzed thousands of times a second by an onboard computer. This computer identifies objects such as other vehicles,
lane markings, pedestrians, bicycles, basically everything that’s immediately in front of your vehicle. The computer knows the exact
dimensions of the vehicle and at every millisecond how far each of the objects around it are, and how fast the vehicle is going at
any given time. This information is then used to alert the driver when it detects that the vehicle is getting too close to something
else. These safe-zones are usually activated when the driver is just about to pass the point of being able to stop without hitting
At this point, the vehicle then pre-charges its brakes to help the driver stop
more quickly and in less distance, thereby avoiding a collision and saving you from an insurance claim.
AEB, auto emergency braking, is often not the term used when automakers market their vehicles. Sometimes, in the case of Honda, auto-emergency
braking is a part of a bigger package of driver-assist features.
-Honda calls it “CMBS:
Collision Mitigation Braking System” and it’s part of the “Honda Sensing” suite of driver assistants. Honda’s CMBS system is fully
“active” (see below for passive and active definitions).
-Ford calls it “Pre-Collision
Assist with Pedestrian Detection”. Ford is one to watch if you’re considering a Ford because they have both “passive” and “active”
-Mercedes has to be Mercedes and calls it the unnecessarily long “Distronic
Plus with Pre-Safe Brake”. Mercedes’ system is also “active”.
CAPABILITIES OF EACH SYSTEM
Then there are the capabilities of each system. Each is different, and it’s important to get the details from your salesperson. There
are a few very important questions to ask when you’re at the dealership looking at new cars and exploring their safety tech:
the system “passive” (meaning that it will alert you and pre-charge the brakes but not actually bring the car to a stop by itself)
or is “active” (meaning that the vehicle will stop entirely by itself)?
2. Is there a speed limit (does the system only work in “city”
traffic, often 30 mph or less)? And if so, what happens when you’re traveling above that speed?
3. What kind of obstacles can the
car “see” (does it only stop for vehicles ahead or can it identify pedestrians, animals, bikers, etc.)?
4. How well, if at all, does
it work at night or in compromised driving conditions such as fog/heavy rain? This is a big one, because even a person with 20/20
vision is drastically impaired at night or in inclement weather when it comes to seeing pedestrians and traditional bicycles.
Cameras, on the other hand, can use infrared technology and in some cases, heat sensing to detect objects on the road ahead, thus
cutting out “vision” entirely. If the system doesn’t have night capabilities, I still think it’s good to get, just know that you’ll
have to be traditionally careful at night.
HANDS ON RESEARCH
The next important bit
of research is the hands-on portion and this is the most fun. When you go on a test drive, be sure to ask your salesperson to demonstrate
the system for you. Most drivers buying a new car are still new to these features and a bit wary of them, and it’s important to experience
them in a controlled environment with a salesperson before you’re out there on the road by yourself.
-Note how the car behaves when
the system activates.
-Note how much quicker it stops. Ask the salesperson to repeat the test multiple times in different situations
to see how consistent the response is.
-If your’e not buying that day, go back to the dealership on a rainy day when the lot is wet
and the camera that’s mounted in the windshield is obstructed. Does the vehicle let you know that the system has been compromised?
If not, does it still function?
When it comes to buying a new car, I highly
recommend optioning up and paying more for these features for a number of reasons. Sometimes you get a break on your insurance if
your vehicle is able to stop itself or pre-brake for you. Insurance companies love it when you cut down on your vehicle as a liability.
More recently, these systems have been getting more and more affordable. Toyota was the first
to make their entire suite of driver assist features affordable. Honda followed suit and on most Honda models, you get the entire
suite of driver assist features for $1,000 on top of the vehicle’s MSRP. That’s a really good deal.
However, if you’re not immediately in the market, do your research. If the car you want doesn’t offer it this year, will it offer
it next year? Is the 2017 model going to be adding more safety features that you might find interesting? Maybe
you want to wait to see how these features actually work as more and more vehicles drive off the lots and onto the roads with the
According to a 2013 Pew Research poll, Americans keep their cars an average
of 10.8 years, and that’s increased as cars across the board come down in price, go up in reliability, and owners aren’t able to afford
to buy a new one as soon. Ten years is a pretty long time. Using that logic as an assumed ownership duration, by the time you go to
trade in your vehicle for something new in 2026, these features will likely be standard and required. Therefore, your car will likely
hold more value in the long run and be safer for its next owner.
And most importantly, if the
price is right, I would suggest ponying up for it, only because over the course of your ownership, chances are you’ll get into at
least one close call, and just like the backup camera, even just one accident is one too many.
AEB is the backup camera of 2016. Once considered a frivolous luxury feature, it’s quickly becoming the standard for vehicles costing
$16,000 to $160,000 and with good reason. Although we’re still in the early days of full-autonomous cars (cars that can completely
drive themselves), it’s prime time for AEB, which seems to be the perfect middle ground. You still have control of the car, but with
a little help from technology just when you might need it most.
I hope you’ve enjoyed and learned
something from this installment of Car Talk, check back next week when we dive into night-driving and why headlights and how you use
them can make a lot of difference to the smarter driver.