In the past, automotive engineers focused on creating safety systems that protected drivers in car crashes. In the future, advances like the Google self-driving car on display this week, will likely remove motorists and their steering wheels from the driving equation. In the present, things are a little murkier.
Out of 24 vehicles tested, eight earned the highest rating of "Superior."
The era of the self-driving car inched closer to reality this week when Google unveiled its autonomous prototype, but the truth is, in more subtle ways, drivers have already ceded some control to automated systems. Many vehicles are already equipped with new technology that offers drivers active assistance behind the wheel. Features like adaptive cruise control, active lane assist and automatic braking are more common.
"With advancements happening quicker than ever in the automotive space, not only is safety about what happens when you hit something in your car, but avoiding that scenario entirely," said Akshay Anand, analyst at Kelley Blue Book. Sold under a variety of brand-specific names, these systems can at once be alluring, confusing or even repellent to consumers.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has developed a new method for assessing the effectiveness of safety systems that deliver automatic braking capability. On Thursday, the nonprofit organization released results from the testing of 24 luxury SUVs and sedans.
Four vehicles – the BMW 5 Series and X5, the Hyundai Genesis and the Mercedes-Benz E-Class – earned perfect scores when equipped with the crash-prevention features, which are often sold as optional add-ons. Overall, eight cars earned the highest rating of "Superior," 13 were given "Advanced" rating and three earned a "Basic" rating.
Cars earn a "Basic" ranking if they have an autobrake system that provides minimal speed reductions. Vehicles that combine a warning with more moderate speed reductions on tests at 12 and 25 miles per hour receive "Advanced" status and ones that provide "major" speed reductions earn "Superior" status, according to IIHS.
Such systems are becoming more popular. More than 20 percent of 2014-model-year vehicles offer autobrake capabilities, according to the Highway Loss Data Institute, twice as many as were available on 2013 models. Forward-collision warning systems – with or without autobrake capabilities – are offered as options on nearly 40 percent of all 2014 models.
They're one important way that the industry is attempting to reduce accidents. Roughly 90 percent of car accidents are attributed to human error, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data. While many of the models are sold by luxury brands, many more mainstream brands are also starting to offer them on their products, including Buick, Chevrolet, Dodge and Toyota.
More than 20 percent of 2014-model-year vehicles offer auto brake capabilities.
"We know that this technology is helping drivers avoid crashes," said David Zuby, the executive vice president and chief research officer at IIHS. "The advantage of autobrake is that even in cases where a crash can't be avoided entirely, the system will reduce speed. Reducing the speed reduces the amount of damage that occurs to both the striking and struck cars and reduces injuries to people in those cars."
Front-collision warning systems use sensors, cameras, radar and lasers to detect when a car is getting too close to another car. Many issue warnings to drivers and pre-charge brakes to maximize their effect if the driver responds, IIHS said. The more advanced systems apply the brakes if the driver doesn't respond.
In addition to the four cars with perfect scores, the Buick Regal, Cadillac CTS, XTS and Chevy Impala earned the highest rating of Superior when equipped with autobrake systems. All of the cars are also available with the warning system only, which earns a Basic rating.
Full results of the testing can be found on the IIHS website here.