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A Crash Course: What You Need to Know About New Automated Safety Systems

New safety features that are built into vehicles are designed to help drivers to avoid accidents. The same technologies someday might enable vehicles to drive themselves—just don’t expect it anytime soon.

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At age 73, automobile dealer Earl Stewart admits that he can’t turn his neck as well as he used to and that he relies on his vehicle’s backup camera and proximity detector to make sure that he doesn’t hit anything. So, after he kissed his wife goodbye one morning and backed his 2013 Lexus LS 460 L out of his garage, Stewart heard the beeping of those vehicle safety systems, which made him hit the brakes. His wife had walked behind his vehicle, and he narrowly avoided hitting her.

“It was a scary thing,” he says.

Backup cameras, blind-spot warnings and other advanced safety features have been around for years in the United States and now exist in more vehicles at a wider price range than ever before. For example, you can get Active Park Assist and a rearview camera on a family car, such as a 2014 Ford Focus Titanium ($23,960), says David Alexander, who is an analyst for Navigant Research. Two years ago, you would’ve found those features more typically on a luxury car, such as a BMW 7 Series ($74,000).

Vehicle manufacturers and industry analysts say these safety features, which are known as advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), dramatically reduce accidents and traffic congestion. Basic features, which start at $395, use hardware, such as cameras and radar, combined with computer software to provide information or warnings that help to make driving safer. More-advanced feature packages, which typically start at about $995, can take limited control of your vehicle to help you to avoid or at least minimize the effect of an accident. (See “Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems.”)

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle accidents sent at least 2.6 million people to the emergency room in 2011 (the most recent data available). A 2011 study by AAA found that vehicle accidents cost consumers $299.5 billion per year. Human error is the main cause of accidents, regardless of whether it’s the result of simple mistakes, distracted driving, drowsiness, health issues or intoxication.

Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems

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Automakers and insurance companies say they want those numbers to go down, and ADAS features are expected to help to make that happen. Nevertheless, obstacles remain for consumers when it comes to the price of these systems and the effects that they have on automobile insurance.

STEADY EVOLUTION. As more safety features emerged in vehicles, consumers increased their calls for more widespread use. A December 2013 international survey of consumers who were 18 and older by the consultancy Accenture found that 85 percent of respondents want automatic braking systems that would stop their vehicle during an emergency, and 72 percent want vehicles that have collision-warning systems that help drivers to avoid accidents. A survey of drivers who are over the age of 50 by insurance company The Hartford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that respondents ranked blind-spot detection, collision-avoidance systems, emergency response systems, lane-departure warnings and reverse monitoring systems as five of the most desired features that are in new vehicles.

Automakers continue to bring new ADAS features to market. Infiniti introduced a feature in the 2014 Q50 that’s called direct adaptive steering, which removes the long-standing mechanical link between the steering column and the front wheels. The system instead uses sensors to register how the driver turns the steering wheel and then communicates that to the wheels.

Infiniti says direct adaptive steering creates a smoother driving experience, because the driver no longer feels road bumps or vibrations through the tires to the steering wheel. The company says this can reduce fatigue. However, veteran automotive writer Dan Carney, who is one of the six experts whom Consumers Digest uses to produce our automotive Best Buy recommendations, says the system feels “isolated and unnatural.” Susan Carpenter, who is an automotive critic for Orange County Register and another of the six experts whom Consumers Digest taps for our automotive Best Buy reviews, says you might have to drive hundreds of miles to experience the anti-fatigue benefit. The six Q50 models that include this feature range from $37,050 to $45,350.

Meanwhile, Volvo’s entire 2014 lineup contains the first standard radar and camera system that’s capable of detecting—and stopping for—pedestrians and bicycles that are on low-speed roads. The system engages when the vehicle reaches 3 mph, and Volvo says it works best when the vehicle moves at up to 30 mph.

QUICKER REACTION. BMW is researching technology that would make its vehicles more responsive to cyclists and pedestrians via a transponder system that would be able to brake the vehicle even if the driver's view of the cyclist or pedestrian is obstructed.

QUICKER REACTION. BMW is researching technology that would make its vehicles more responsive to cyclists and pedestrians via a transponder system that would be able to brake the vehicle even if the driver's view of the cyclist or pedestrian is obstructed.

BMW

ADAS features emerge so quickly that David Zuby, who conducts vehicle research for Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), says he believes that consumers still don’t understand fully what these systems do.

Stewart agrees. “The manufacturers and the dealers are doing a poor job of communicating what’s already on today’s cars,” he says. He gives frequent talks about ADAS features to community groups that are in his area, he says.

Michael Albano, who is a Chevrolet spokesperson, says General Motors dealerships inform consumers about the systems and how they operate when the vehicle is purchased. Instead of education at the manufacturer level, he says, dealers should provide a hands-on learning experience for consumers to understand the systems.

A significant problem when it comes to consumers understanding ADAS features is a distinct lack of standardization for these systems among automakers. The features even have different names from one automaker to the next, according to Jake Nelson of AAA.

Several of the experts with whom we spoke expect the industry to standardize ADAS features and capabilities over time. However, Jeremy Carlson, who is an automotive analyst at IHS, which is a market-research company, doubts that consumers ever will see ADAS features work in the exact same manner in different makes of vehicles, because each manufacturer has its own proprietary computer system that powers the ADAS features in its own respective manner.

It also can be difficult for drivers to become accustomed to the feel of certain ADAS features. As an example, Richard Wallace, who is an analyst with Center for Automotive Research, says active lane-keeping can feel like “a carnival ride” if drivers take their hands off the wheel, because the vehicle shifts left and right between lane lines. He estimates that this problem will be solved in 5 years as the computer processing power increases in vehicles and the technology evolves toward lane-centering (keeping the vehicle at a safe point between road lines) instead of the easier task of course correction.

SAFE PROGRESS. Despite the problems, early results indicate that ADAS features help to reduce the frequency and the severity of crashes. A 2012 study by IIHS concluded that “forward-collision avoidance systems, particularly those that can brake autonomously, along with adaptive headlights, which shift direction as the driver steers, show the biggest crash reductions.” Using information through August 2011 from Highway Loss Data Institute, the study showed that the number of property-damage liability claims from crashes were 14 percent lower for vehicles that were equipped with forward-collision warning and automatic braking systems than were similar models that didn’t have those features.

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IIHS also just completed the first major ranking of collision-avoidance systems across 74 midsize sedans and SUV makes and models. (Tests of additional models are continuing.) Each vehicle was tested for its capability to slow itself by at least 5 mph to avoid or at least minimize the damage from a pending accident. The tests were conducted at various speeds, with the rankings published for results at 12 mph and 25 mph—speeds that Zuby says are relevant to real-world driving and the manufacturers’ operational speed specifications for the systems. The vehicles that ranked the highest in terms of collision avoidance were those that had multiple radar systems or cameras as well as automatic braking systems.

However, Nelson points out that many of the tests that were performed don’t paint a realistic picture, because they were conducted in controlled conditions on closed tracks or off-road entirely via computer simulation. As a result, he says, we still know little about how these systems perform when multiple drivers are on the road or in adverse weather conditions. “We’re a year or two behind” in collecting such data, Nelson concedes. Although data continue to pour in, it isn’t enough to draw firm conclusions about how much money that each feature can save you or how many lives that it can save each year.

As of press time, AAA was expected to publish its own ranking of ADAS-equipped vehicles in spring 2014, but it didn’t make any of its information available to us.

ADDING UP. Most ADAS features are optional purchases for consumers, and Zuby and other experts say the ADAS feature packages add an average of $2,000 to the price of a vehicle. Features that warn you of dangers cost less than do features that can take partial control of your vehicle when a problem arises: the more sensors and cameras that an ADAS feature includes, the more that it will cost. For example, a Mercedes-Benz package that has numerous ADAS features costs $2,800–$3,270, depending on the vehicle. A simpler package that has only blind-spot detection and a lane-keeping feature costs $875.

EYES AROUND YOU. Automakers' blind-spot detection feature alerts you via a small light near your exterior mirror if another vehicle moves into a dangerous position.

EYES AROUND YOU. Automakers' blind-spot detection feature alerts you via a small light near your exterior mirror if another vehicle moves into a dangerous position.

Volvo

You likely won’t be able to pick and choose one or two ADAS features, either. Many features employ the same sensors, so they tend to come in packages. As a result, it’s likely that if you want, say, adaptive cruise control, you also will get—and have to pay for—a lane-departure warning feature and a blind-spot detection feature, Alexander says. Luxury brands, naturally, tend to take this to an extreme. They often will lump in ADAS features with trim packages that include interior wood trim, leather seats or other cosmetic features.

The good news, according to experts with whom we spoke, is that, as manufacturing of ADAS expands, prices for the features are likely to fall. Wallace says new technologies might drive down costs even faster. He points to a new lidar system, which uses lasers instead of radar’s radio waves to detect nearby objects and map a vehicle’s surroundings. French company Valeo developed the system, and it will cost manufacturers only about $250. A comparable system that’s on Google’s self-driving test vehicle costs about $70,000. Meanwhile, all semiconductor prices dropped about 10 percent in the past 2 years and are expected to fall another 3 percent in 2014, according to industry researcher IC Insights. As these costs go down, manufacturers will add more sensors to vehicles, says Richard Barrett of Broadcom, which manufactures wireless components for vehicles.

Adam Kopstein of Volvo says the savings are being passed on to customers. He points to the company’s Technology Package, which includes ADAS features. The package cost $2,100 in 2010. Today, the same features come in a $1,500 package.

INSURERS UNSURE. Insurance companies like the idea of ADAS, but that doesn’t mean that you should expect a discount on your automobile insurance rates if you buy a vehicle that has ADAS features. Four of the five insurance companies with which we spoke say they don’t provide incentives for ADAS-equipped vehicles, because the technologies haven’t been proven.

“When we believe there is a positive overall impact from the technology, we will likely offer lower prices to customers who purchase vehicles” that include ADAS features, says Danny Miller, who is a spokesperson for Esurance. He didn’t provide a timeline. Other insurance companies say they wait for each make and model to prove its safety record before they re-examine rates for a particular vehicle.

Liberty Mutual was the only company that we found that provides discounts for vehicles that have adaptive cruise control, adaptive headlights, blind-spot detection, collision-avoidance systems and lane-departure warning as standard features. The company says discounts vary by state and policy levels. We found that in Illinois, a vehicle that has all of these features could save you up to 20 percent on your premium, but we weren’t able to break down what each feature would save you. You should keep in mind that vehicles that have ADAS features tend to be more expensive than those that don’t, and more-expensive vehicles typically trigger higher automobile insurance rates.

Other expenses should be considered, too. Even though ADAS features are designed to reduce the frequency of accidents, the added cost of their repair if an accident occurs could wipe out any insurance savings, says Bill Windsor of Nationwide Mutual Insurance. He cites this as a reason why Nationwide doesn’t provide ADAS discounts.

Wallace says most ADAS features can be repaired only at dealerships, which limits your option of repair facilities. The parts also are pricey. Greg Horn of Mitchell International, which tracks data for insurance companies and repair facilities, says a sideview mirror that has to be replaced on a standard vehicle would cost up to $600. If the mirror contained cameras, then that repair would cost up to $1,200, he says.

In addition, cameras and sensors all too often are placed in vulnerable positions, such as inside the grille or behind the front bumper.

“Even in a minor fender bender, you’ve got the opportunity to break or at least misalign a radar sensor,” Carlson says.

LOOKING AHEAD. The natural endpoint to the confluence of ADAS technology is the self-driving vehicle, which automakers say could be on the road by 2020. Even if they arrive in 6 years, Wallace says, the first self-driving vehicles likely would self-drive only under certain conditions, such as on straight highways or in minimal traffic. He says you still would have to be in control the rest of the time.

Regulatory agencies also have to weigh in before self-driving vehicles arrive. Many of the technologies that are in the works involve vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication systems that would allow vehicles to interact with each other and adapt to traffic and weather conditions. As of press time, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hasn’t decided on regulations for these systems, which will affect how manufacturers implement the technology.

Nevertheless, manufacturers won’t wait for regulation to begin their push toward the self-driving vehicle. Manufacturers, industry groups and Department of Transportation are testing connected-vehicle technologies, which Nelson says we can expect to see in about 8 years. In February 2014, NHTSA announced that it wants a standard for vehicle-to-vehicle communication in place by 2016. Nelson estimates that it will take at least 10 more years before the majority of vehicles that are on the road contain such technology, which means that the full effect likely won’t be known for at least 20 years.

Roads also will have to be adapted. Wallace predicts that high-occupancy-vehicle lanes, which also are known as car pool lanes, will start to become self-driving-vehicle lanes, although that might not be commonplace until 2050.

In other words, the road ahead to a fully self-driving vehicle is truly a long one.

John R. Platt is a freelance writer who covers technological advancements for a variety of publications. His articles have appeared in Scientific American and Today’s Engineer.

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