Mr. Green Car. High tech safety in autos

By Allen Penticoff
Columnist

I am old enough to remember when safety equipment in cars was limited to a simple lap belt that nobody wore. Although, as a child, our family ‘66 Chevy Bel Air was in a minor highway accident and we were all thankfully strapped in, so no injuries at all.

We still have problems with getting folks to wear seatbelts, but since the first airbag came out, safety features have become a big selling point in new cars. Fourteen airbags are not uncommon. Cars have been engineered for crashes and many things in the past that could harm you in a crash are now gone.

The current generation of new cars and light trucks are beginning to feature exotic electronic assistance to enhance driving safety. The August 2017 issue of Consumer Reports took a look at some of these and made their report based in part on owner input.

The report covers Forward Collision Warning (FCW); Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB); Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC); Blind-Spot Warning (BSW); Lane-Departure Warning & Lane-Keeping Assist (LKA) and Rear Cross-Traffic Warning (RCTW) & Rearview Cameras. I will briefly touch on each.

Forward Collision Warning is a radar technology that detects you are too rapidly approaching an object or vehicle and sets off a warning. More advanced versions deploy Automatic Emergency Braking to slow the vehicle with a quicker reaction time than the driver. This technology, particularly the AEB, does save lives and reduces damage. There is little to fault these systems and Consumer Reports believes these systems should be standard equipment on new vehicles. However, this technology is often sold only with higher end packages of a given vehicle – adding thousands of dollars to the price.

Adaptive Cruise Control and FCW share technology. Actually, ACC preceded FCW in technical development. With ACC you set your cruise control for a certain following distance and it will maintain that distance from the vehicle in front of you – often combined with AEB to hit the brakes if the closing rate is too fast. This technology does not prevent accidents but makes driving easier and prevents tailgating. I have driven cars with this feature and it is very nice – and amazing. But it does not come cheap.

Blind-Spot Warning uses radar to detect vehicles in those places your mirrors don’t cover… and many new vehicles have some big blind spots. I wish our Volt had this feature. Owners with BSW like it even though 30 percent report false alarms. Consumer Reports recommends this feature if available.

Rear Cross Traffic Warning and Rearview Cameras use two different systems to enhance parking lot safety. They may not prevent serious highway accidents, but they can save an expensive accident—or even a tragedy such as backing over a child in a driveway.  RCTW uses radar to detect vehicle movement from either side when you are backing blindly out of a parking space. The backup camera gives you a clear view of what is behind you – often with computer generated lines showing where the vehicle will be going in reverse relative to the steering wheel position. Like other technologies using radar, there are false alarms and some owners find it annoying – and this particular technology has a high level of false reports. Nonetheless, 31 percent of owners say it has prevented a crash. While rearview cameras have only a 20 percent prevention rate, most owners like it and this feature will be mandatory on new vehicles beginning May 2018.

Lane-Departure Warning and Lane-Keeping Assist keep an eye on your driving to prevent you drifting out of your lane or off the edge of the road. Those with a warning will flash a light and vibrate your seat or steering wheel. Those with LKA will actually steer the vehicle a bit to respond to the warning. Owners are finding these systems plagued with poor performance (not doing what it is supposed to be doing or at the wrong time) or with false alarms.  While 70 percent of owners are satisfied with LDW and LKA it is not a proven accident prevention technology. This technology has too many bugs yet for Consumer Reports to recommend it.

Without naming names, there are vast differences between manufacturers in the effectiveness of this technology. Some have very high false alarm rates. Others have barely functional systems. Buyer beware. And don’t take the technology as the final word for what is going on – you still have to look with your own two eyes.

I believe the AEB will become mandatory sooner than later, or simply such a desirable feature that you can’t sell a vehicle without it. It would be like trying to sell one now without airbags. People expect them. As for the other technologies – automation is rapidly approaching that may soon relegate these technologies to the same place as hand-cranks for starting an engine.

Lastly, I will insert my own opinion on a safety matter that confounds me. Why don’t we have bright daytime running lights on all vehicles?

Since writing on this topic over a year ago, I have observed the obvious… that having your headlights on in the daytime makes you much more visible than a vehicle without lights in ALL conditions. Period. Even the biggest trucks are more visible with their lights on from far away. On top of that, we have way too many people who believe that as long as they can see in the dark, they drive without headlights on. Why? It saves almost nothing in fuel – it doesn’t make you “cool.” Law enforcement should be pulling these fools over and issuing citations.

Why don’t we have full time/automatic headlights? It is technology that costs a few bucks, has been around a long time and it is a lifesaver. The incidence of T-bone crashes where a driver pulls out in front of a high-speed vehicle coming from the side is high among the 25 percent (5,600) side collision fatalities – of the 22,500 collision fatalities in 2015. How many head on collisions (highest fatality rate/type accident) could be avoided by seeing a vehicle approaching sooner? A day does not go by that I am not startled by a vehicle approaching with no lights coming out of a shady area or driving in the dark with no lights.

I want you to see me – so I’ve taped over the light sensor on the dash of my 2003 Chevy Suburban. Now I have headlights all the time. They go off when I turn the engine off – I cannot forget them and kill the battery. Other vehicles don’t have automatic headlights (Ford), but many, maybe most, newer vehicles have auto-off features that if you turn your lights on and forget to turn them off, they will turn off on their own in a few minutes. My 1998 Plymouth Voyager had this feature. Your car may have it too – find out if it does by test or reading the owner’s manual. Then leave your lights on all the time… so I can see you approaching too.

Even the oldest vehicles, such as my 1992 Honda Civic, can be inexpensively outfitted with a relay to have the headlights come on with the engine and go off with the engine. This is life-saving. Why not avoid an accident instead of using your air bags?

So please join Mr. Green Car in evangelizing full-time headlight use. Encourage your friends and family to do the same, just as you would encourage them to wear their seatbelts. The cost is cheap—the reward substantial. R.

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