Not All Safety Technology Is Created Equal: Video

July 3, 2012

Google's autonomous cars may be limited to Nevada, and Japan is probably the only country on Earth looking to fast-track self-driving vehicles, but as Ford demonstrated just last week, elements of autonomous technology are coming soon to a vehicle near you. The Highway Loss Data Institute has been hard at work, figuring out which of those gadgets are worth your time -- and money.

HDLI took a long, hard look at cars equipped with high-tech safety systems, comparing their crash data with less tech-heavy vehicles. HDLI focused on three features in particular: forward collision avoidance, adaptive headlights, and lane departure warning. In all, two of the three systems proved highly beneficial to drivers, but the other generated some very curious results. Here's a rundown of HDLI's findings:

FORWARD COLLISION AVOIDANCE

This kind of technology goes by different names depending on who's manufacturing it, but whatever it's called, it's meant to warn drivers of an impending collision -- for example, when the vehicle in front of you has suddenly slowed or stopped. In some cars, this technology even applies the brakes on the driver's behalf.

HDLI found this to be a hugely beneficial technology. As you can see from the graphic above, collision avoidance systems resulted in fewer bodily injuries and less damage to both drivers' cars and the cars in front of them -- about 14% lower in Acura and Mercedes-Benz vehicles.

The improvements were even more impressive when the collision avoidance system included automatic braking. When the system simply flashed an alert to the driver, the results were still better than with no warning system at all, but not by much. 

Bottom line: if you're going to get collision avoidance, make sure it comes with automated braking.

ADAPTIVE HEADLIGHTS

Adaptive headlights aren't necessarily part of a fully autonomous car. They move in sync with the steering wheel so that the driver has a better view of the road. A self-driving car, of course, wouldn't have much use for that technology, since it would rely more heavily on radar, lasers, and other sensors, but so long as humans remain charge, it's a nice addition to modern car niceties.

In fact, HDLI found that adaptive headlights are more than just niceties, they're a huge boon to safety, too. In all, the technology resulted in 10% less property damage than on cars without it.

Interestingly, though, adaptive headlights didn't result in significantly fewer accidents, just less damage. HDLI is still investigating this finding to come up with some hypotheses about why it might be.

Bottom line: Adaptive headlights may not prevent a crash, but they could save a life or two. In all, they appear to be a worthwhile investment.

LANE DEPARTURE WARNING SYSTEMS

This is a big one. Along with collision avoidance technology, lane departure systems are among the most fundamental to autonomous vehicles. Given the number of accidents caused by folks who drift from their lanes because of distractions or drowsiness, lane departure warning devices are expected to post huge wins for safety, too.

But in tests, not so much. HDLI looked at cars from Buick, Mercedes, and Volvo that came equipped with lane departure warning and found that in the case of Buick and Mercedes, damage to vehicles actually increased. Only in Volvos was damage to vehicles and passengers lower across the board. 

This was a big letdown, since HDLI's sister organization, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety had previously suggested that lane departure systems could save up to 7,529 lives on American roads per year.

What's the problem? HDLI doesn't know. Lane departure is still a new technology, so HDLI's vice president, Matt Moore, suggests that as more data comes in, the systems may eventually be vindicated.

Moore also suggests that the problem could lie with the technology's first-generation status: "It may be that drivers are getting too many false alarms, which could make them tune out the warnings or turn them off completely." As a result, the tech isn't playing much of a factor in collisions.

Why did Volvo perform better? HDLI suggests that it may have something to do with the fact that Volvo's lane departure system is bundled with the collision system mentioned above, which provides automatic braking.

Bottom line: This technology may not be ready for prime-time yet -- at least not until it comes with auto brakes.

Want a little more info? Here's a short clip from HDLI explaining some of these findings:

Have you thought about purchasing this kind of technology for your next car? Does HDLI's study make you more or less likely to consider goodies like adaptive headlights? Drop us a line, or leave a note in the comments below. 

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