Cars must fit new technology to stop hitting kids
With car companies starting to finalise their plans for 2016, the question on the minds of engineers is: how good will our brake and safety camera systems have to be? With Euro NCAP introducing new requirements for cars to brake for children running out from behind parked vehicles, the safety systems on board new cars will have to become a lot more intelligent.
Next year, Euro NCAP and the IIHS will start to include “Autonomous Emergency Braking” (AEB) technology in their safety checks of new cars. Both will begin by testing how well new cars can avoid rear-ending other vehicles at low speeds – the kind of crashes that happen all the time in town.
Euro NCAP will also test cars at higher speeds, aiming to encourage car companies to fit radar or camera systems that can help prevent more serious crashes. New cars will need to fit better sensors or risk missing out a five-star rating. That would be bad for sales.
More protection for pedestrians and cyclists
In 2016, it’s all about pedestrian safety. Euro NCAP will test how well the systems detect pedestrians stepping out into traffic. Eventually, the tests will also include the other big group of “Vulnerable Road Users” (VRUs) – cyclists. It will take a little longer, however. Cyclists move are harder to detect and predict. The sensors will need to scan wider angles and the image processing will have to be more powerful.
“We’re making progress in our work on AEB for VRUs,” said Euro NCAP Secretary-General Michiel van Ratingen. “In the first phase  the tests will focus on pedestrians, but there is overall agreement on the test scenarios we will use. There will be three, with defined closing speed ranges of up to 60km/h (37mph). This is the speed range at which most casualties occur in normal daylight conditions.”
Euro NCAP is asking that cars will be able to detect an adult walking across from the nearside and running across from the farside. Cars should also be able to spot a child emerging from behind an obstruction. The tests will all be conducted in daylight conditions.
“Euro NCAP is asking that cars should be able to spot a child emerging from behind an obstruction. The tests will all be conducted in daylight conditions”
Some accidents still unavoidable
There’s still some work to do on the rating, says van Ratingen: “It’s clear that systems today won’t be able to react and brake early enough to avoid an impact with the pedestrian in all the test scenarios.”
Why? Car companies are extremely cautious about the risk of false positives. If the car slams on the brakes when it’s not needed, it could cause more accidents, they say, and erode public confidence in the technology.
“For most systems, the car maker chooses only to activate the brakes once the pedestrian is already in the path of the vehicle – rather late,” said van Ratingen. “The mitigation effect of the braking can still be significant however. It can make the difference between a fatal or a survivable injury.”
At speeds of up to 40-45km/h (25-28mph), Euro NCAP believes that it should be possible to avoid a collision – in the defined test conditions. At speeds of 40-60km/h (25-37mph), they will want cars to reduce the impact speed by at least 20km/h (12.5mph).
Euro NCAP will continue to test how much pedestrian safety the bumper, the front edge of the car and the hood offer in the event of collision. These tests are done at 40km/h, so there’s a clear expectation that car designers should be able to design cars that offer pedestrians effective protection up to that speed. There’s still a lot of room for improvement.
Smarter sensors, softer cars, better brakes needed
The big question facing car companies is whether they will need just a camera or if a sensor fusion approach – radar and camera combined. Better brake systems that can reach maximum deceleration faster will also be needed.
It’s not clear yet exactly how Euro NCAP will rate the systems – car companies want to know sooner rather than later so that they can work out how much they need to spend to still get a five-star rating. The sensible ones will be taking no chances and fitting sensor-fusion systems and faster-reacting brakes.
How realistic are the pedestrian safety tests?
Euro NCAP also still needs to finalise the type of dummy-targets it will use in its pedestrian safety tests.“We have chosen a surfboard-type propulsion system with adult and child pedestrian targets that have non-articulated joints,” said van Ratingen. “There are still some questions about the radar cross-section of the targets that may need to be improved.”
Some car companies would prefer a target with articulated joints. If the arms and legs move like a real pedestrian, it’s more realistic and easier for cameras to identify them. Euro NCAP is looking into this. If industry researchers can come up with such a target in time for the tests in 2016, it’s likely to be chosen.
Cyclists next on the radar
Beyond 2016, Euro NCAP has further ambitions for AEB technology. The organisation wants new cars to be able to prevent crashes in more scenarios: low visibility and cyclist detection are, among other things, the next priorities. Both will mean significant advances in the intelligence of cars – and in the way cars are tested.