Opinion: Automatic Emergency Braking Mandate is Misguided Overreach

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

Sometimes, government regulations make so much sense, you wonder why they weren't passed before. And sometimes, they make sense when taken at face value, but not as much when you think it through.

That, I think, is the case with the recent rule that requires automatic emergency braking to be standard on all new cars starting with the 2029 model year.

I realize that whenever someone like myself criticizes a safety regulation, we're putting ourselves in an unpopular position. After all, who doesn't like safety? Who doesn't like fewer pedestrian deaths and collisions between cars? Won't someone think of the children?

Of course, those kinds of critiques are usually made in bad faith as opposed to addressing the issue. That said, of course I am all for safety and fewer pedestrian deaths -- and fewer car crashes. I am just not sure this is the correct approach. At least not yet.

Here's why: The technology, as good as it is, doesn't seem fully ready for a universal mandate.

I test a lot of cars -- there's a new ride in my garage almost every week of the year, plus what I test on first drives and at events staged for media to get a sampling of new product. Most of my automotive journalist peers also test many new vehicles -- some test a lot more than I do. One thing I've experienced, as have others, is the automatic emergency braking (AEB) false alarm.

That's when the system activates unnecessarily. It's jarring, and at times, dangerous.

I know it's anecdotal, and I know it's rare. But it does happen. Sometimes the system misreads the situation, especially in urban areas, and activates when it shouldn't.

The sensors that these systems use sometimes aren't better than the human behind the wheel. For example, Friday afternoon I went to lunch and on the drive home I was trying to slide across a few lanes of Chicago's famed Lake Shore Drive, navigating some slower traffic as I approached my exit. The head-up display in the BMW 750e xDrive sedan I am testing suddenly lit up with a red steering wheel icon. I think it was trying to tell me I was too close to the car in front, but I had space. Not a ton, but I wasn't tailgating -- I don't do that. Yet the car was trying to warn me something was amiss.

Now, obviously, that system isn't AEB, and the car didn't activate the brakes unplanned. But what if it was, and what if it had? Given that the new rule is requiring cars to have AEB that works at up to 62 mph, I can envision a scenario where a system that's programmed to operate conservatively thinks the car is too close to the vehicle in front and activates the binders. If the driver behind is following too closely and not paying attention and/or not driving a vehicle with collision-avoidance tech, there could be a problem.

I was definitely driving slower than 62 mph when the Bimmer's HUD lit up.

I admit that example may be a stretch and isn't specifically related to AEB, but the point I am making is that if the car doesn't react correctly to a situation, AEB systems could activate unnecessarily, thus actually causing a collision. In this case, I had to deal with going from a very fast moving lane of traffic to my exit while maneuvering around some too-slow for the highway motorists. The roadway was packed and there wasn't a lot of space. A human can make the necessary judgments in that scenario. A computer is going to error on the side of extreme caution.

Maybe my imagination isn't over active. The same National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that is finalizing the AEB rule is also currently investigating Honda for unintended activations of AEB in Accord and CR-Vs. Almost 3 million vehicles are affected.

Not only that, but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety did some AEB and forward-collision warning testing recently using 10 crossover SUVs and only one scored "good." And even that one, the Subaru Forester, wasn't perfect when it came to avoiding hitting things -- or at least, motorcycles and large trucks.

So if AEB systems are activating unnecessarily, maybe we should slam on the brakes before mandating them? Pun fully intended.

To be clear, I am not totally against AEB as a tech. I'd consider buying it if I were new-car shopping and it was an option on a ride I was considering. Nor would it stop me from buying a new car that had it as a standard feature.

For sure, AEB would have saved me from two low-speed rear-end collisions I was at fault for in my teen years -- twice I let my attention wander and was surprised by unexpectedly stopped traffic. Thankfully, damage was minor since the speeds were under 10 mph, but it was still a hassle.

I just don't know if the tech is reliable enough across the board, or will be a half-decade from now, to be forced upon all new cars by fiat.

I am not some anti-regulation libertarian type, nor do I believe we should use regulation to address every problem. I tend to go case-by-case on regulations. And the case for this one, while it seems to make sense on paper and seems to be popular as a potential solution, is ignoring reality.

I'd be all for this if the tech was foolproof. But it's not. Furthermore, there are also other ways to cut down on pedestrian and vehicle-collision deaths. Better roadway and walkway design would help. Encouraging drivers to slow down in urban and suburban areas would be helpful, too. So, too, would a change in buyer mindset away from large trucks and SUVs that have large hoods that make it tough to see pedestrians -- and tend to do more severe damage when collisions happen.

Speaking of changing driver mindsets, it would be a huge step towards safety if we can get people to put their phones away while behind the wheel.

As for minimizing car-to-car collisions, I tend to feel the same way. Let's get drivers to pay attention, avoid tailgating, and not drive too fast for conditions. And sure, for those drivers who do have newer cars that warn about stopped traffic and other obstacles, let's use those systems to help drivers avoid being in a position where a panic stop is needed.

I am generally accepting of regulations that involve safety or pollution reduction. I have no beef with seatbelt laws and relatively few complaints about smog controls. In general, I am all for regulations that help drivers prevent collisions -- and help people survive the collisions that can't be prevented.

In this case, however, the government seems to be ready to force all new-car buyers to have to deal with a technology that still fails too much. Unnecessary activations happen -- and there's always the possibility AEB systems could fail when actually needed.

I haven't even discussed if this rule is a possible step towards a future in which some level of autonomous driving is mandated. It probably isn't -- don't worry, I am not wearing a tinfoil hat -- but it's still a bit concerning for anyone who has worries about a world in which all new cars are mandated to be built with certain levels of autonomous driving. Given all the issues with AVs, that seems far-fetched, but it can't be ruled out.

Finally, there's another aspect at play here -- so many cars are already equipped with AEB either standard or as a relatively low-cost option, I am not sure this regulation is even necessary. It reminds me a bit of anti-lock braking systems -- they are required now but were already on all but a small handful of cars, usually extremely cheap cars or sports cars that were purpose-built to be as lightweight as possible, when the mandate came into being.

Again, I am all for safety, even if it means mandating automakers install tech on all new cars, despite the increased cost and weight. But mandating tech that can actually, though rarely, cause problems seems short-sighted.

Let's make sure the tech is as fully-baked as possible before we declare it so necessary it has to be mandated. That's all I ask.

[Image: Mike Mareen/Shutterstock.com]

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Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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3 of 22 comments
  • Mikesixes Mikesixes on May 07, 2024

    It has potential benefits, but it has potential risks, too. It has inevitable costs, both in the price of the car and in future maintenance. Cars with ABS and airbags have cost me at least 2000 bucks in repairs, and have never saved me from any accidents. I'd rather these features were optional, and let the insurance companies figure out whether they do any good or not, and adjust their rates accordingly.

    • Sayahh Sayahh on May 08, 2024

      Not mandated by the government, but personally I do not like the auto parking e-brakes. The GR Corolla did away with it and brought back the handbrake, but it seems like more and more models and trims come with it.

  • Michael Smith Michael Smith on May 08, 2024

    I drive 100-300 miles a day in new BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, and GM SUVs. Some are already equipped with automatic braking.

    It's the first thing I turn off when I start the car.

    I've had experiences where (as the author notes) the system gave false alarms and stabbed the brake pedal, threatening my ability to control the car.

    Further, every driver encounters situations where, for example, legal following distance must be momentarily compromised in order to avoid a difficult situation. When the system intervenes, it disrupts the driver's plan of action. This can lead to a collision as the driver has to suddenly react not to his surroundings, but to the system.

    Not only is automatic braking an insult to skilled drivers, it's dangerous to everyone.

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