Reportedly Terrible: AAA Tests Pedestrian Detection Systems

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
reportedly terrible aaa tests pedestrian detection systems

The paranoid luddites that write for this site have occasionally been accused of being hyper critical of modern-day driving aids. Be it a cursory mention of how a little snow totally flummoxed the systems of an otherwise agreeable review car, the direct addressing of an issue where road salt encouraged a vehicle to attempt to steer itself into a ditch, or one of this author’s many diatribes on how the bulk of this technology doesn’t seem anywhere near market ready, there’s always a couple of exceptional individuals ready to call us backward-looking morons.

While that’s often a correct assessment in other matters, it seems we’ve called this one correctly. The American Automobile Association (AAA) recently tested four sedans from competing manufacturers, running them through a handful of scenarios intended to replicate situations that place pedestrians at extreme risk. Taking into account the above smugness, you can probably imagine how poorly it went.

In the study, AAA used a Chevrolet Malibu (Front Pedestrian Braking), Honda Accord (Honda Sensing), Toyota Camry (Toyota Safety Sense), and Tesla Model 3 (Automatic Emergency Braking) from the 2019 model year. The testing, done in conjunction with the Automobile Club of Southern California’s Automotive Research Center, was aimed at assessing the effectiveness of the automatic emergency braking (with pedestrian detection) systems these vehicles came equipped with. Testing occurred under near-perfect conditions.

Test events included an adult crossing in front of a vehicle traveling 20 mph and 30 mph during the day and 25 mph at night, a child darting out from between two parked cars in front of a car (20 and 30 mph), a vehicle turning right onto an adjacent road with an adult crossing into traffic, and two adults standing near the side of the road with their backs to oncoming traffic (20 and 30 mph). Keen to avoid any real-world fatalities, AAA used mobile dummies as human analogs. This turned out to be an incredibly wise move.

If you wish to learn more about the finer points of the parameters and instrumentation used for testing, allow us to redirect you to the extended study. However, if you just want hear about the dummy massacre that ensued, read on.

AAA reported that the systems performed best when an adult crossed in front of a vehicle traveling 20 mph in broad daylight. Collaboratively, the systems successfully avoided a collision 40 percent of the time. But things quickly fell apart as speeds increased. At 30 mph, most failed to avoid smacking into the simulated pedestrian, and things only got worse from there.

The child-sized target darting from between two cars ended in a collision 89 percent of the time at 20 mph. The right-hand-turn test resulted in all vehicles impacting the faux humans, with only the Malibu registering that a person was even there.

When approaching the two adults standing near the road’s edge, a collision occurred 80 percent of the time at 20 mph.

Upping any vehicle’s speed to 30 mph pretty much guaranteed a collision, regardless of the scenario, and night testing proved to be the systems’ Achilles heel. None of the vehicles even registered an obstacle was present, allowing the simulated accidents to take place at full speed. That’s a bummer, especially since the vast majority of pedestrian-related accidents take place in the evening.

We hate to keep banging on the decaying corpse of this poor horse, but you’re still the best defense against an accident and should probably not rely on these (or any other “advanced driving aids”) to ensure safety. Sure, they might get you out of a jam once in a while, but you’re really gambling if you placing any amount of faith in them.

This leads us into the big question — is it responsible for manufacturers to market these admittedly flawed products? We’ve long harbored concerns that these features lull many drivers into a false sense of security, possibly encouraging inattentiveness, and there are a few studies to back that up. However, if someone’s doing their job as a motorist, then this really should be a non-issue… right?

Late in the study, AAA mentioned that the owner’s manual recovered from the glovebox of each test vehicle included an acknowledgment that “the integrated pedestrian detection system may not discern pedestrians at night or in adverse weather such as rain, snow, sleet or fog.” Automakers have also gotten into the habit of reminding drivers to keep their hands on the wheel in press releases, regardless of how advanced they claim their driving assistance or safety features happen to be. But how often is your average motorist really looking at their car’s manual? And who, other than the people that write or read about automobiles all day, have any awareness of these systems’ shortcomings?

I’ve asked around. Regular people think these features are bulletproof until they’ve been shown otherwise. That might not be a big deal when someone’s adaptive cruise control goes haywire out on a lightly trafficked highway. But who do you think the law is going to blame when automatic emergency braking fails to see that kid darting from between two cars? Until the rules change, it’s not going to be the manufacturer — which is why we should all press OEMs for better quality or, at the very least, more transparency in what these systems are actually capable of.

This isn’t a “won’t someone please think of the children” situation, and I’ll go on record as saying all pedestrians should stay the hell away from my car lest they be crushed. But the results of this AAA study are truly abysmal. If automakers are providing pedestrian detection systems that are only slightly better than nothing, why even bother?

[Images: AAA]

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  • MaintenanceCosts We hear endlessly from the usual suspects about the scenarios where EVs don't work as well as gas cars. We never hear the opposite side of the coin. From an EV owner (since 2019) who has a second EV reserved, here are a few points the "I road trip 1000 miles every day" crowd won't tell you about:[list][*]When you have a convenient charging situation, EV fueling is more convenient than a gas car. There is no stopping at gas stations and you start every day with a full tank.[/*][*]Where there are no-idling rules (school pickup/dropoff, lines for ferries or services, city loading, whatever else) you can keep warm or cool to your heart's content in your EV.[/*][*]In the cold, EVs will give you heat from the second you turn them on.[/*][*]EVs don't care one bit if you use them for tons of very short trips. Their mechanicals don't need to boil off condensation. (Just tonight, I used my EV to drive six blocks, because it was 31 degrees and raining, and walking would have been unpleasant.)[/*][*]EVs don't stink and don't make you breathe carcinogens on cold start.[/*][*]EV maintenance is much less frequent and much cheaper, eliminating almost all items having to do with engine, transmission, or brakes in a gas car. In most EVs the maintenance schedule consists of battery coolant changes and tire maintenance.[/*][*]You can accelerate fast in EVs without noisily attracting the attention of the cops and every passerby on the street.[/*][/list]
  • MaintenanceCosts Still can't get a RAV4 Prime for love or money. Availability of normal hybrid RAV4s and Highlanders is only slightly better. At least around here I think Toyota could sell twice the number of vehicles that they are actually bringing in at the moment.
  • Tree Trunk Been in the market for a new Highlander Hybrid, it is sold out with order time of 6 months plus. Probably would have bit the bullet if it was not for the dealers the refuse to take an order but instead want to sell from allotment whether it fits or not and at thousands over MRSP.
  • AKHusky The expense argument is nonsense. My mach e was $42k after tax credit. Basically the same as similarly equipped edge. And it completely ignores that the best selling vehicles are Rams, F150s, and Silverados, all more expensive that a bolt, MAch e or ID4. As an owner, I'd say they are still in second car territory for most places in the country.
  • Johnster I live in a red state and I see quite a few EVs being purchased by conservative, upper-class Republicans (many of them Trump-supporters). I suspect that it is a way for them to flaunt their wealth and that, over time, the preference for EVs will trickle down to less well-off Republicans.
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