How Will Auto Safety Ratings Change In The Future?

December 31, 2015

Car safety has evolved at a rapid pace—a pace that likely wouldn’t be what it is if it weren’t so carefully monitored by two major safety agencies in the U.S.

They’re the federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which oversees NCAP testing, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a group that’s funded by the insurance industry. Together, they strive to have a safer vehicle fleet, with fewer accidents and fatalities.

While the IIHS has introduced new tests in recent years, like the small overlap frontal test and dynamic testing for front crash prevention—as well as tightened its requirements to earn its Top Safety Pick+ award—the federal ratings and tests haven’t seen a major rehab since 2010.

READ: How Will Auto Safety Ratings Change In The Future?

NHTSA 5-star safety ratings timeline

NHTSA 5-star safety ratings timeline

And during that time, much has changed. For instance, active-safety systems are no longer curiosities available only on some of the most expensive luxury sedans.

Here’s how the federal government will update its five-star safety program over the next several years:

  • Introduce a new crash test
  • Use “more human-like” crash dummies
  • Rate crash-avoidance technologies
  • Assess pedestrian protection

The new crash test is a frontal oblique one that will measure occupant protection in angled frontal crashes. It should be an effective complement to the IIHS small overlap frontal test, and provide a new vehicle-structure challenge for automakers.

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Vince and Larry, the crash-test dummies

Vince and Larry, the crash-test dummies

In addition to that, the federal government will improve its full frontal barrier test to assess the safety of back-seat occupants. And a new, more biofidelic test dummy design will provide more information on forces, and thus injury risk.

Neither the timeline nor the requirements themselves are yet laid down as law; they’re under a comment period until February 16, 2016.

As for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the other major U.S. safety agency that conducts crash-testing, don’t be surprised if it tightens some of the requirements for its existing crash tests in the near future.

Aligned on emergency braking

One area of future focus in which the federal government and the IIHS agree is on the need for automatic emergency braking (AEB) systems. And with the two agencies aligned on this issue, we anticipate within jsust a few years, he vast majority of new vehicles will be sold with automatic-braking capability.

“We are entering a new era of vehicle safety, focused on preventing crashes from ever occurring, rather than just protecting occupants when crashes happen,“ said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, in a joint statement earlier this year. “But if technologies such as automatic emergency braking are only available as options or on the most expensive models, too few Americans will see the benefits of this new era.”

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These systems use cameras, radar, lasers, or a combination of these technologies to help detect an imminent crash, warn the driver, and then intervene by engaging the brakes—to either prevent the accident or reduce its severity—if the driver doesn’t react.

Such systems are life-saving, of course; but they do more than that in serving to eliminate fender-benders (and, probably, traffic snarls): According to the IIHS, AEB technology can reduce insurance claims by up to 35 percent.

Furthermore, they’re essential stepping-stone technologies on the way to autonomous driving.

Keep it simple, please

To return to the initial question, of how ratings will change, we hope that both of these agencies keep it simple for consumers. Car shoppers might be concerned about safety in their next purchase, but not interested in getting mired in all the minutia of the tests, the force measurements, the risk assessments. Give them a good summary, but do make a deeper level of results available to those who want it.

To that, the federal government will keep its five-star ratings system, but introduce half-star increments to help better differentiate between vehicles. We sincerely hope that their interface for accessing those ratings, one which hasn’t changed much in well over a decade, also evolves with the ratings.

In the meantime, consider the ratings from both agencies in any new-vehicle purchase you make. And study our full review pages closely, as in the Safety section of each we bring you a summary of the safety ratings available from both agencies, a rundown of any red flags that could be cause for the safety conscious to turn away, and the availability of active-safety features.

It’s a safer future we can all look forward to.


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