Car Safety 2016: Warnings, Assists, and Autopilot, Oh My!

Car scanning road ahead

We love cars, but find the fact that it took almost 1.6 million U.S. motor-vehicle fatalities to make wearing a seat belt mandatory in America troubling. Happily, annual fatalities have declined fairly steadily since their early-‘70s peak, despite the fact that Americans now drive well over one and a half times the number of miles they did then, often while using a smartphone. And with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) testing and rating vehicles for safety and crashworthiness, we have to admit it’s getting better.

Smartphones can, of course, pose huge risks to drivers, so much so that NHTSA partnered with the U.S. Department of Transportation to create the website, and “distracted driving” now has its own Wikipedia entry. But the connectivity and processing power of smartphones can also be used to help drivers avoid accidents and to make sure authorities get alerted quickly and with all the information they’ll need to respond to an accident. And those capabilities will definitely be required for any future “self-driving,” “autonomous,” or Autopilot-equipped cars. As we learned at NEMPA/MIT’s recent panel on the intersection of technology and design, a whole new world of car safety and driver-assistance technologies is available–and evolving–so we’re going to take a look at some of the more important and effective new tech.

Blind-Spot Monitor/Rear Cross-Traffic Alert
Two of the most popular new bits of safety tech, blind-spot monitors and rear cross-traffic alerts, address a problem that’s existed as long as cars themselves. Anytime a driver focuses on the road ahead, which is generally the right thing to do, he or she cannot pay close attention to what’s behind the vehicle. Happily, automakers now build blind-spot monitors and rear cross-traffic alerts into many new cars, including the classic-looking new Mustang, the speedy but surprisingly capable Dodge Charger, and the 3-row, off-road-ready Nissan Pathfinder SUV, among many others. Systems vary a bit from one automaker to another, but they generally include both audible and visual warnings to let the driver know if there’s another vehicle or an obstacle to the rear that he or she might not see or even be able to see. We’re strongly in favor of these systems and heartily recommend having both.

Automatic Emergency Braking
We have already declared this one the most important safety feature of 2016, but Automatic Emergency Braking isn’t your typical high-tech safety feature reserved for up-market cars. It’s available on fan-favorite enthusiast cars like the Volkswagen GTI, practical compacts like the Subaru Impreza, and even value-oriented cars like the Scion iA. IIHS has gone as far as to make Automatic Emergency Braking a requirement for any car contending for its Top Safety Pick+ award. Add to this a pledge by 10 automakers—representing up to 99% of all light-vehicle sales—to include automatic emergency braking on their vehicles as standard equipment, and not only is this one of the most important technologies of the future, but it should become one of the most prevalent, too.

Automatic Collision Notification
The two sets of safety features we’ve discussed so far aim to prevent accidents, but this next one doesn’t work until an accident occurs. American roadways are as crowded and busy as ever these days, but a car can still get into an accident that will leave the driver and passengers stranded on an empty road, unable to call authorities for help. Happily, many cars now offer Automatic Collision Notification, a system that contacts authorities with details after an incident that triggers the car’s airbags or otherwise indicates a crash. This capability is part of a number of automakers’ safety or infotainment systems, including BMW Assist, Ford Sync, GM OnStar, Lexus Link, Mercedes-Benz mbrace, and Toyota Safety Connect. It’s available on many popular cars, including the Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Focus, and Volkswagen Jetta. A newer version, called Advanced Automatic Collision Notification, aims to include as much relevant information for authorities as possible regarding the collision and the car. These systems have already saved many lives, and we look forward to seeing them improve.

Lane-Keeping Assist
In the world of technological safety systems, most fall into two camps: the “guardian angels” and the “chauffeurs.” While blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alerts will watch over drivers, keeping them safe without directly interfering with the operation of the vehicle, lane-keeping assist will step in and take corrective action if a driver seems to be wavering. Understandably, this advancement is a touch too “Skynet” for some folks, but the old-school-cool Chris Wardlaw had no gripes with the technology in the Subaru Outback or Lincoln MKX, and Nicole Wakelin tested a Volvo XC90 this year with lane-keeping assist, which helped earn that car a 9 out of 10 for safety in her review.

At last, we reach the future. Without question, driverless cars are coming. Google is dedicated to making that a reality. So are Apple and other companies that you may or may not have heard of, such as Delphi. These companies are making incredible inroads toward autonomous driving. The only manufacturer producing a car today that can truly drive itself (albeit under specific circumstances) is Tesla. While other manufacturers have produced cars with adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist, Tesla has taken this technology to another level. The Tesla Model S, Tesla Model X, and, soon, the Model 3, are equipped with Autopilot—a technology capable of maintaining speed and distance, but also changing lanes and managing traffic. Enthusiasts who prefer to check their mirrors and look over their shoulders may decry the advent of Autopilot, but this technology is finally here, and we don’t see it leaving anytime soon.

-Matt Smith and Steve Halloran

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