Autonomous Braking – vehicle safety technology that can save lives

And a leap towards the future driverless car

Volvo truck testing autonomous brakingOxford, 1st July 2015. Vehicle accidents are 90% due to human error, says Peter Wells of Volvo Truck’s Accident Research Team. Which is why vehicle manufacturers and the UK’s insurance industry are so interested in any technology which can cut accident statistics and their costs.

The latest of these vehicle technologies is Autonomous Braking (also called Autonomous Emergency Braking or AEB), a system that uses vehicle-mounted radar and cameras to detect an obstruction ahead, then slams on the brakes if the driver doesn’t react in time.

The UK insurance industry, as represented by its accident-research arm Thatcham Research, is a fan, seeing such technologies as a way of cutting overall accident statistics as well as, in practice, reducing the impact of any collision.

The assembled press saw the technology demonstrated on the 30th June at the old Upper Heyford airbase in Oxfordshire, where a huge Volvo articulated truck with a 40 ton load bore down at 50 mph on a stationary model of a VW Polo. The driver didn’t touch the brakes, and the truck screeched to a halt inches away from the Polo’s rear bumper.

Inside the truck cab the effect was even more dramatic. As a truck passenger, you found yourself hurtling towards a tiny car, and automatically jamming your right foot hard down on the floor. Seconds after an audio and video warning alarm, if the driver did not react, the truck automatically hit the brakes. Quite spectacular!

Of course these are high-technology vehicles with brakes on the trailer as well as the cab, and ABS as well as the autonomous-braking technology. In less perfect conditions, such as higher approach speeds or wet roads, then a collision is more likely, as we saw demonstrated.

#stopthecrashThe automotive industry is keen on the technology nevertheless. “Even a 10 mph reduction in speed at the moment of impact, say from 60 mph to 50 mph, can mean the difference in saving a life or not,” says Wells.

And the technology is not just for trucks, as the Thatcham people emphasise. “AEB systems are currently available as standard on nearly 11 per cent of new cars, and an option on a further 18.5 per cent of them,” says Matthew Avery, Safety Research Director for Thatcham Research.“In fact, manufacturers cannot gain the coveted Euro NCAP 5 star safety rating without it.”

According to the Euro NCAP statistics, vehicles with AEB have already contributed to a 38 per cent reduction in rear-end shunts. Simply taking two popular AEB-equipped vehicles as examples, the Volvo XC60 and Volkswagen Golf, the UK insurance industry has already seen a 7 per cent reduction in damage claims for the Volvo, and a huge 40 per cent reduction for the Golf.

The system is still not that well known however. Thatcham believe the problem is that too few purchasers are aware of the option, even when car manufacturers offer it. It may also be that until you have seen the technology demonstrated (and you can watch it on YouTube), you are not aware of its real capabilites. An instant’s inattention in heavy traffic, a momentary distraction, and the system could cut in and save you from an accident.

Volvo truck in AEB testingUnder European regulations, from November 2015 all new heavy trucks will have to incorporate the system. An increasing range of cars will see it offered as an option, and Thatcham believe that by about 2025 all new cars will include AEB as standard.

The technology is also a major step towards the future driverless car. The same vehicle radar and camera systems that are used for AEB can underpin automatic avoidance of pedestrians and cyclists, vehicle “platooning” or following each other in convoy, and even automated parking.

Volvo and the Swedish city of Gothenburg are already planning a pilot study of driverless vehicles in 2017. The “Drive Me Gothenburg” study will see around 100 vehicles equipped with the system, with production versions available as soon as 2018/2019.

Any downside?

As with any new technology, there are potential risks as well as benefits. In the same way as GPS has made navigators more casual about position-fixing, AEB could make drivers more careless. And as any sailor will tell you, GPS is not fool-proof; you cannot rely on it 100 per cent.

AEB testing - PMH and friendsAnd the insurance industry has not yet worked out the legal position over who is to blame if an AEB-equipped vehicle still manages to collide with another. Lots of potential material for the lawyers there.

But it looks like AEB is coming, if only because if manufacturers want to gain the top EU safety ratings for their vehicles, they will have to include the technology.

So if you are one of those people who are concerned about the nanny state taking over yet another aspect of your freedom, my advice is to learn to learn to ride a motorbike as soon as possible. Although there’s no guarantee that two-wheelers are big-brother proof either, in the long term.

© Philip Hunt, 2015.

 YouTube video – AEB-equipped Volvo truck in action

YouTube video – AEB-equipped cars in action

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