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Will new vehicle technology eliminate collisions?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012 - 07:26
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With adaptive radar cruise control, blind spot warning systems and self-parking, vehicle technology that was once the domain of science fiction is becoming commonplace. Some in the collision repair industry are wondering if all this accident-prevention technology will severely reduce their business.

Even worse, recent announcements that Google is testing "self-driving" vehicle prototypes has the repair and insurance industries wondering if they have a future in this brave new world of "goof-proof" automobile technology. To put this in perspective, it's important to understand these technologies and their limitations First, let's look at accident avoidance technology, which can be divided into two distinct types: active and passive.


Greg Horn

Passive technology includes back-up cameras and blind spot warning systems. Blind spot warning systems scan blind spots in adjacent lanes and warn against unsafe lane change. In some systems, a visual warning appears in the side-view mirror, or an audio warning through the radio speakers. The problem is that these warnings can be ignored or misunderstood and an accident can still result.

Active systems, such as Volvo's City Safety, evaluate if the driver is reacting to danger quickly enough. If not, the system takes over and begins auto braking. Volvo's City Safety system works at speeds between 2 mph and 19 mph, using a laser sensor built into the windshield to scan the area in front of the vehicle. If it senses a car within 18 feet of the front of the vehicle, it will automatically apply the brakes to avoid impact. At a speed difference greater than 9 mph, the crash won't be prevented, but the severity of the impact will be reduced when City Safety decreases vehicle speed.

Studies by British-based Thatcham and the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have found that Volvo's City Safety system prevents about 25 percent of low-speed, rear-end crashes.

Autonomous vehicles sense the world with advanced control systems that interpret the information to identify appropriate navigation paths as well as obstacles and relevant signage, updating their maps based on sensory input to navigate through uncharted environments. A few states have passed legislation to allow the use of these vehicles on roads, so this technology is more than a fad.

Google's autonomous vehicle senses its environment with laser, radar, lidar, GPS and computer vision to navigate on its own. (Lidar, an acronym for Light Detection and Ranging, is an optical remote sensing technology that can measure the distance to an object by illuminating it with light). A human may choose a destination in an autonomous vehicle but is not required to perform any mechanical operation.

What effect will all this technology have on the collision industry? Not much for the next decade or so, for two reasons: the lag time between when a technology is adopted and when we begin to see an impact on accidents, and human or system errors.

Remember when dual airbags became standard equipment on all vehicles sold in the United States in 1994? We did not begin to see an impact on total loss rates until the early 2000s, driven up by both the deployment of air bags and the resulting damage to dashboards and windshields that added thousands to repair costs.

The delay was caused by the time needed for the dual airbag-equipped vehicles to penetrate the population of vehicles and eventually become the majority. That was also a time when the average age of a vehicle on U.S. roads was about six years from new; today we are averaging more than 10 years. Additionally, this accident avoidance equipment is an option on some, not all vehicles. It is mostly seen on luxury vehicles where it is often part of an expensive package option (in Volvo's case about $2,100). This will further increase the lag time for these technologies to be on the majority of vehicles sold in the United States.

Human or system error also will be a significant factor in new technologies failing to wholly prevent accidents. While I am a life-long Volvo enthusiast and believe in their safety reputation, a brief browsing of the Internet shows some embarrassing failures of the Volvo City Safety System, and some embarrassed Swedish engineers spouting some colorful phrases in their native language.

My conclusion? While studies show that accident avoidance systems will reduce crashes, and autonomous vehicles have the potential to eliminate accidents, it will take a while; whether human- or system-caused, there still will be accidents.

Greg Horn is vice president of industry relations for Mitchell International.

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