Safer driving: Let the machines take the wheel
A vehicle is shown in the midst of a 'small overlap frontal crash' carried out by the Institute for Highway Safety.
Published Friday, August 17, 2012 7:18AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, August 17, 2012 7:33AM EDT
Just when you thought the safety story had all been told, along comes the IIHS’s (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) new small overlap frontal crash test – whammo, only the Acura TL and Volvo S60 earned coveted “good” ratings. The Infiniti G earned “acceptable,” which is a little like getting a participation ribbon in the grade school “sports day.”
Those told to stay after class because of their “marginal” ratings: the Acura TSX, BMW 3 series, Lincoln MKZ and Volkswagen CC. Poor: Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Lexus IS 250/350, Audi A4 and Lexus ES 350.
It seems only yesterday when every vehicle aced the crash test, any crash test. But this new type of frontal crash test by the IIHS has hit eight of 11 midsize luxury and near-luxury cars with less than acceptable grades.
This crash test, says the IIHS, is the “latest addition to a suite of tests designed to help consumers pick the safest vehicles. It involves a car being tested in a crash that sees the driver’s side strike a 5-foot-tall rigid barrier at 40 mph.
“The test is designed to replicate what happens when the front corner of a car collides with another vehicle or an object like a tree or utility pole,” says the IIHS. “Outside of some automakers' proving grounds, such a test isn't currently conducted anywhere else in the United States or Europe.”
The IIHS has just ratcheted up new safety demands on automakers who had, collectively, learned to build vehicles robust enough to nail existing crash tests. So the quest to build the perfectly safe car continues. No, that’s not true. It’s getting tougher to score top marks in safety for every car company, and not just on the crash test front.
You see, regulators are pushing hard to find ways to limit in-car driver distractions that are a byproduct of all the gizmos and electronic wizardry available in so many new models. Most automakers believe full and very “smart” voice-activated controls – smart voice activation, in other words – are around the corner and they will do much to limit driver distractions.
And there’s more. Car companies are also working on ways to help the driver avoid distractions during intense driving situations.
Currently, as Automotive News reports, drivers can activate a “Do not disturb” function through the MyFord Touch screen in the centre console to block incoming calls or messages arriving through a phone activated by Ford's Sync voice recognition system. But Ford, notes the publication, is working on a system that could block new calls and messages automatically in really stressful situations.
The car itself would put up a “Do not disturb” sign, triggered in a way that resembles the “Stop” safety feature on the treadmill at your gym – by reading the pulse and breathing of the driver, as well as vehicle control inputs. Start panicking or getting nervous or antsy, “Do not disturb.”
Ford is hardly alone. The U.S. government, reports The Detroit News, has launched a year-long test involving nearly 3,000 specially-equipped cars, trucks and buses. All the vehicles, located in Ann Arbor, Mich., will be able to sense one another wirelessly. In doing so, the vehicles themselves will warn drivers about impending collisions, often before the vehicles are in sight of each other.
Eventually, we are surely going to reach the point where we let our computers do most of the driving, if not all of it. As The News reports, driverless cars are already legal in Nevada, though the law still requires a person in the driver's seat. They’re legal not because the technology is fully refined and totally reliable, but because Google Inc., is at work in Nevada on a pilot project to test cars equipped with sophisticated 360-degree sensors and computers. Machines never get distracted or tired, notes The News, adding that Google’s cars have logged more than 140,000 miles on public streets with only occasional human intervention through the brake or wheel.
"If you are really going to look to the future, you are going to have to ask yourself: Is Google right? Should we have driverless cars?" Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Automotive Safety, a consumer group, told The News. "The computer driven car with a GPS system is going to make less mistakes than a human being. The question is, is society ready for it?"
In the meantime, we do know that certain driver nannies work to prevent crashes, injuries and fatalities. Data collected and analyzed by the Highway Loss Data Institute -- the research arm of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) – shows that forward collision avoidance systems help to prevent crashes. Adaptive headlights are worth the money, too.
But lane departure warning systems seem to have the opposite effect. That is, insurance claims data suggest that cars loaded with lane departure warning systems are more accident-prone. The incessant and often unnecessary “beeping” when drivers cross the white line might be more an irritant than a useful warning. Thus, drivers either ignore them or become jumpy or erratic.
Matt Moore, vice-president of the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), an IIHS affiliate, says "It may be that drivers are getting too many false alarms, which could make them tune out the warnings or turn them off completely. Of course, that doesn't explain why the systems seem to increase claim rates, but we need to gather more data to see if that's truly happening."
More research needs to be done to explain why blind spot detection doesn’t seem to reduce crashes. And park assist? The evidence says if you want to cut crashes, spend your money elsewhere. Again, the reasons why remain a mystery.
"So far, forward collision technology is reducing claims, particularly for damage to other vehicles, and adaptive headlights are having an even bigger impact than we had anticipated,” says Moore.
As can see, many believe the best way to prevent car crashes, injuries and fatalities is to take human beings out of the driving equation entirely. When that crash-free day comes, the IIHS and government regulators will no longer even have a need to perform crash tests and rate crashworthiness.
Personally, I worry about putting so much faith in machines, computers in particular. After all, I had to reboot my frozen laptop to finish writing this column. Good thing it wasn’t driving my car.