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NHTSA takes next step toward upgrading five-star safety ratings

Tuesday, February 16, 2016 - 09:00
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While connected car technologies related to infotainment and navigation may have highlighted the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, back in Washington the excitement focuses on new "autonomous" safety features that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) plans to promote via upgrading its five-star rating system.

Starting in model year 2019, the five-star rating will include a crash avoidance rating based on whether a vehicle offers any of the multiple technologies that will be added to the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) and whether the technologies meet NHTSA performance measures. These technologies could include forward collision warning, lane departure warning, blind spot detection, lower beam headlighting technologies, semi-automatic headlamp beam switching, amber rear turn signal lamps, rear automatic braking and pedestrian automatic emergency braking.

The NHTSA established NCAP in 1978 and the agency has enhanced it over the years. The problem is, even though highway traffic deaths have come down considerably over the years, almost all new cars get either a four- or five-star rating.  According to the NHTSA, that "diminishes the program's ability to identify for consumers vehicles with exceptional safety performance."

Some crash avoidance technologies are more advanced than others. For example, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) believes blind spot detection is not ready for prime time. On the other hand, its research indicates that collision imminent braking (CIB) and adaptive lighting systems (ALS) are helping drivers avoid crashes. ALS help drivers see around curves at night.

However, despite the IIHS's enthusiasm, ALS is not one of the technologies the NHTSA is considering. NHTSA intends to include three lighting safety features in this NCAP upgrade: lower beam headlighting performance, semi-automatic headlamp beam switching between upper and lower beams, and amber rear turn signal lamps.  Russ Rader, spokesman for the IIHS, did not want to comment on the NHTSA's refusal to consider ALS until his group submitted written comments to the agency.

With regard to potential aftermarket impact, it would seem that the lighting changes would top the list of potential NCAP add-ons. Replacement lamps are sold off retail shelves. However, there is no performance specification for advanced lighting technology. That said, an emphasis on adding lighting features to the NCAP makes eminent sense. According to the agency’s 2010 fatal accident data analysis, night-time pedestrian accidents accounted for 70 percent of all pedestrian accidents, and more than 90 percent of the night-time accidents occurred on straight roads, (which may be why ALS in not included in the list of possible enhancements).

The current auto lighting safety standard is Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 108, Lamps, reflective devices, and associated equipment. FMVSS No. 108 requires passenger cars and trucks to have a headlighting system with upper beam and lower beam headlamps. While FMVSS No. 108 establishes a minimum standard for headlamp performance, which has resulted in reduced injuries and fatalities, NHTSA believes that lower beam headlamp performance beyond the minimum requirements of FMVSS No. 108 will result in additional safety benefits. While extended illumination distance may help drivers avoid striking pedestrians, this additional light could have unintended consequences if it is not properly controlled to limit glare. This is where the NHTSA's suggested new testing regime, which we won't discuss here, comes into play.

NHTSA also intends to include semi-automatic headlamp beam switching in this NCAP upgrade. The FMVSS 108 requires cars to switch between high and low beam at a driver's manipulation. Semi-automatic headlamp beam switching was reported as optional or standard for approximately 52 percent of the “trim lines” in 2016, according to the NHTSA.

No one questions the usefulness of updating the NCAP. Questions will be raised about details, however. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers' response to the upcoming changes captures its guarded enthusiasm. “We will provide constructive comments on the agency’s proposal, and our priority will be to focus on information that is based on scientific evaluations and real-world data that is most meaningful to consumers,” its December statement said.

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