Crash Avoidance Systems Underwhelm in Latest IIHS Study

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) announced it has updated its vehicle-to-vehicle front crash prevention test to account for higher speeds. Originally, the group was only running tests for things like automatic emergency braking below 25 mph. Now, it’s targeting higher speeds and obstacles of varying sizes. But the results aren’t any better. Out of the 10 small crossovers tested, only a single model garnered a good rating.

“This is a vital update to one of our most successful test programs,” said IIHS President David Harkey. “The vast majority of new vehicles now come with automatic emergency braking, and our research shows the technology prevents as many as half of all front-to-rear crashes. This new, tougher evaluation targets some of the most dangerous front-to-rear crashes that are still happening.”

From the IIHS:

The Subaru Forester is the only small SUV to earn a good rating in the updated test. Two others, the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, are rated acceptable. The Ford Escape, Hyundai Tucson and Jeep Compass earn marginal ratings, while the Chevrolet Equinox, Mazda CX-5, Mitsubishi Outlander and Volkswagen Taos are all rated poor.
The original vehicle-to-vehicle front crash prevention evaluation was developed when the technology was relatively new, so the performance requirements only addressed low-speed crashes. By the time the original evaluation, with test runs at 12 and 25 mph, was discontinued at the end of 2022, all tested vehicles were earning the top rating of superior.
While real-world data indicate that front crash prevention is eliminating higher-speed crashes, the original test didn’t provide a way to gauge the performance of specific systems at those higher speeds.
Additional IIHS research also showed that today’s systems are less effective at preventing crashes with motorcycles and medium or heavy trucks than they are at preventing crashes with other passenger vehicles.

That would seem to indicate that the industry has gotten pretty good at preventing low-speed accidents using a combination of lidar, radar, and visual sensing equipment. However, other groups haven’t been nearly as kind and the IIHS wasn’t clear what it meant when it claimed real-world data indicates crash prevention systems are eliminating higher-speed crashes.

Per capita roadway fatalities in the U.S. are still quite a bit higher than they were a decade earlier and federal regulators constantly decry excessive speed as the primary culprit. Even the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s own updated protocols showed that an overwhelming majority of the vehicles it tested didn’t perform as well as they could have.

I suppose the good news is that the IIHS is upgrading its testing protocols to give these systems tougher targets to reach. However, the amount of focus given to advanced driving aids is likewise troublesome. We’ve said it a million times but the mere existence of these systems are proven to dull the senses of most drivers and ultimately lull motorists into a false sense of security. If they don’t work exactly as advertised or cannot cope under certain environmental factors — which is often the case — they’re effectively pointless.

If seatbelts failed at the rate some advanced driving systems do, we probably wouldn’t bother wearing them. That’s effectively what’s happening with a myriad of advanced driving aids, many of which are likewise incredibly expensive to repair after the related sensing equipment takes even the slightest amount of damage. 

But the IIHS is funded by insurance companies who need to hedge their bets in order to remain profitable. The more data accrued by the vehicle, the more opportunities they have to find a reason to deny coverage. Meanwhile, having as many high-tech safety nets in place as possible is assumed by some to gradually lead to an accident-free society. We’re obviously not there yet. However, many regulators and safety groups see this as the path forward despite drivers not really being all that keen on them.

The only problem is that fatal accidents have generally trended upward the more of the above safety systems came online. Automakers may be able to create environments where things like automatic emergency braking thrives. But we haven’t seen that translate into their being predictable in the real world or even in safety tests created by some of the relevant organizations. IIHS testing focusing on pedestrian safety, showed some even the best accident avoidance features had rather severe blind spots.

It seems odd to demand more of something that doesn’t appear to work — leading some to believe these features are gimmicky or progressing at a pace where they’re not doing much more than padding the price of modern automobiles. When they do work, they’re probably a godsend. But the rest of the time, they might actually be doing more harm than good and that isn’t going to sit well with everyone.

At any rate, the IIHS has said its newest tests (focused on automatic emergency braking and forward collision warning) are supposed to condition the industry to step up its game. The new trials will be run at speeds of 31, 37 and 43 mph. Engineers basically drive at these targets and record when the car responded and how much the vehicle slowed before contact was made. They also included new targets sized to match motorcycles and a semitrailers in addition to older targets that simulate the typical passenger vehicle. The IIHS said those changes helped explain why there’s been an uptick in police-reported front-to-rear crashes, including “many that are more severe.”

So… which is it? Did the real-world data show these systems are working or have the police been reporting more accidents these exact systems should have prevented, which was wholly supported by the lackluster showing in the new IIHS testing?

“Obviously, crashes that happen at higher speeds are more dangerous,” said IIHS Senior Research Scientist David Kidd, who led the development of the new testing protocols. “Deadly underride crashes often occur when the struck vehicle is a large truck, and motorcyclists are frequently killed when they’re rear-ended by a passenger car, since their bike offers no protection from the impact.”

It’s undoubtedly a net positive that the IIHS is looking into these systems and comparing them to each other. But the way most high-profile groups are going about it seems to ignore that there are drawbacks to these systems (e.g. false alerts, loss of function in inclement weather) and the many accounts of exasperated drivers who don’t care for them and are likely to just shut them off. At present, it seems like they should perhaps be considered supplemental items separate from force-on-force crash testing.

But you'll have to make up your own mind on the matter and are encouraged to view the study for yourself at the IIHS website before weighing in.

[Images: IIHS]

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Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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4 of 15 comments
  • Lorenzo Lorenzo on Apr 30, 2024

    Why are all these devices being invented, that take the driving out of driving? Is it because there are too many people with driver's licenses who should be taking taxi's and public transportation?

    • Pig_Iron Pig_Iron on Apr 30, 2024

      Let's say you're in a position of power and are obsessed with control, the more control that is taken away from the driver, the more you can decide where and when they can go. Including whether they can leave their 15 Minute GULAG. With the rise of mesh networks, they know where you are, to the inch. The lockdowns were just a rehearsal. ✌

  • Jmo2 Jmo2 on Apr 30, 2024

    “The only problem is that fatal accidents have generally trended upward the more of the above safety systems came online.”

    Obviously you’ve accounted for the advent of smartphones in your analysis? Walk me through it…

    • Matt Posky Matt Posky on Apr 30, 2024

      Mobile devices have absolutely played a role and we've covered that in plenty of other pieces. However, if you look at the years where mobile phones became normalized, per capita roadway fatalities actually tended to decline. We didn't see a noteworthy increase until about 2015. Most people owned smart phones by then, begging the question of what else changed.

      Well, that's about the time you start seeing vehicles come equipped with large infotainment systems as standard equipment -- as well as some of the novel "advanced driving aids" we know likewise encourage distracted driving. Studies have likewise shown that most touch-based infotainment systems really aren't any safer to engage with while driving than a phone. But they're now the common way most people try and interface with their vehicle.

      Truth be told, I think it's a convergence of problems and the things we saw changing include the industry pushing in-car multimedia and new safety systems that pretend to make modern vehicles seem much smarter than they are. The rest is down to the growing disparities in vehicle size over the last couple of decades (something that was exacerbated by government emissions regulations) and the assumed increased substance abuse of the U.S. population.

      There is a wealth of data from NASA and the U.S. Navy that partially automating navigational/piloting systems create a lot of new problems. The Navy also abandoned using touch controls for most new ships because its initial programs showed an increase of accidents. Look into the USS John S. McCain collision.

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