Electronic safeguards such as automatic emergency braking do help, but they can’t be relied on in every situation
I reported recently on Aviva Canada’s decision to lop fifteen per cent from the car insurance rates of car owners who purchased a vehicle with automatic emergency braking (AEB). More car makers are offering this system, along with its sister, front collision warning (FCW). Their names explain the difference: one is a warning, while one actually applies the brakes in the event a driver is facing impact and not reacting. The warnings are abrupt and jolting, as they should be; the challenge facing manufacturers is to keep the false positives down so that drivers don’t tune out the warnings. It’s a work in progress.
I was driving the 2017 Infiniti QX30 AWD a couple of weeks ago. It was equipped with a technology package, which includes forward emergency braking. It would qualify under Aviva’s advertised rate reduction. I drove home near midnight as a winter storm started kicking up its heels, sleet and snow blowing on the highway and making it slick. It wasn’t newsreel worthy footage, just enough to be flying out of the dark to sticking to the car and coat the road.
Within ten minutes of hitting the highway, I got a notice on the dash that the system was currently unavailable. It remained unavailable for the duration of my ride. What’s important is that I was notified; what’s also important is that as more and more technologies like this come into play, drivers are going to have to be more engaged in the act of driving, not less so.
I consider lane departure warning (LDW) and blind spot warning (BSW) systems both a blessing and a bane. I call them text assist, because I’ve seen too many people texting away, their car happily keeping them between the lines like bumper guards at a 5-year-old’s bowling party. We also have inadvertently created two generations of drivers who seem to think shoulder checking is for the other guy: new drivers who trust the technology too much, and those drivers – frequently older – whose physical limitations mean many can’t turn their neck. Yes, placing your mirrors correctly can greatly improve your visibility of your surroundings but shoulder checking should never go away.
Uber has admitted in its self-driving car testing that bike lanes are a problem for the cars. They make a “right-hook” turn without checking for cyclists; if they admit a problem, I’d propose that other systems are experiencing the same issue. Cyclists are agile and quicker than pedestrians, often less predictable, and anything operating autonomously has to be safe for all road users, not just drivers. The functions we currently are seeing on the market – FCW, AEB, LDW, BSW – are all steps in the march toward automation. The fact they can be imperfect or compromised is a given, but the fact drivers may believe they are not is a problem.
An industry legal insider told me “basically, all of the existing technology (camera or radar based) have limitations due to contamination, mainly snow or ice. While not documented, I’d think heavy salt accumulation or excessive dust would similarly affect these systems, with camera based systems more prone to degraded operation. Also, camera based systems can be blinded by sunrise/sunset conditions.”
If you have a backup camera on your car here in Canada, you know it is rendered useless throughout much of the winter. Even though makers are working on recessing the cameras or covering them, our extreme weather can compromise even these protective mechanisms. The salt and brine and beet juice they use on the roads here in Ontario sticks like glue to the underside of our vehicles. It doesn’t take long for a camera lens to look like it’s been smeared with Vaseline, if you can see anything at all.
So how can something like an insurance company trust in the tech enough to offer up such a large deduction? A combination of two major things. Those warning signs I received put the onus back on the driver (though it technically never left), and even imperfect technology is better than what most drivers are doing on the road today. We should see all OEMs with systems that will warn a driver if a system is blocked or degraded below some threshold, even if only for liability reasons. We’ll no doubt see a court tested scenario sooner rather than later if a safety system is documented not operating without warning.
For all the discussions we had in 2016 about autonomous cars – and it felt like every discussion was about autonomous cars – the fact remains we’re still going to need competent, trained drivers for years to come. Don’t let the advertising on your new ride convince you otherwise.