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Latest IIHS results show how attitudes to safety technologies are changing

Latest IIHS results show how attitudes to safety technologies are changing
Tristan Honeywill

It’s less than a year since new cars started to earn extra points in their safety ratings for fitting crash prevention technologies. In the US, the IIHS began its testing programme back in September 2013. Since January, Euro NCAP has factored the technology into its assessments of new European cars.

In the run-up to the new requirements, some were sceptical about the changes. It’s a big step to have a technology braking a vehicle autonomously – the driver should be the one to make such decisions, they argued. Are attitudes changing already?

The public seems to be growing more comfortable with the idea of autonomous driving functions, particularly when there is a safety benefit. There is a growing acceptance that driver distraction is a problem we all sometimes suffer. If a technology can reduce the associated risks, it can only be a good thing.

The latest results from the IIHS reflect this. Of the 24 new US models tested, 21 featured systems that didn’t just warn the driver of a likely collision; they intervened to reduce the speed or stop the car completely. IIHS chief research officer David Zuby says they are already seeing improvements from automakers since the initial launch of the ratings last September.

BMW, for one, has increased the braking capability of their crash prevention system and got higher ratings. Last year the 2013 model 3 Series was equipped with an optional camera-only collision mitigation system that the IIHS rated as “basic”. It only brakes for a stationary vehicle if the system first detects it moving and then stopping.

The system is still available, but this year the 3 Series can also be equipped with a system that uses both camera and radar sensors. As you’d expect, it performs much better and relies less on the driver being fully in the loop. That’s quite a big step for such a driver-focused brand to take.

Availability for crash prevention or “autonomous emergency braking” systems is improving as well, although most still have to be bought as part of an optional package. In the US more than 20% of new models now offer the system, twice as many as in 2012. A collision warning system is offered as an option on nearly 40% of new cars. A similar trend is developing in Europe.

Trying to work out which system does what and which option you need to choose remains pretty confusing however. The best advice is to check the IIHS or Euro NCAP websites – it can be hard to find dealers who understand the technology or the safety ratings well enough.

That’s probably where attitudes need to change most. Companies love to push the connectivity functions in new cars: they’re easy to demonstrate in showrooms, reflect well on the brand, and it’s what everybody’s into these days, right? Maybe. Or could it be that most people just want to know they can use all the technology onboard safely?

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