Shrewd or Crude? NHTSA Proposes Automatic Emergency Braking Requirements

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) floated the notion that every new passenger vehicle should come with automatic emergency braking (AEB) systems. It would seem that the stage is being set for another mandatory safety inclusion, with the NHTSA targeting universal implementation by the end of the decade. But adding another safety net would come with a few complications, as AEB doesn’t really qualify as a passive system.

Mandatory implementation of automatic emergency braking sets a precedent for government regulators to require all manner of other devices that effectively wrangle control away from the driver. Other required systems either work in tandem with the driver to make them more effective (e.g. reverse cameras) or don’t bother coming into play until an accident has already taken place (e.g. seat belts and airbags). But AEB effectively has the car assessing a situation and deciding when to apply the brakes without any input from the driver.

Testing has likewise shown how faulty these systems can be. The American Automobile Association (AAA) ran a series of studies to see how competent mainstream automatic braking applications were and the results were less than enviable in most situations. But it could be argued that the systems are there to help mitigate the severity of a crash, rather than preventing them outright. Realistically, most AEB systems seem pretty decent at avoiding fender benders with the vehicle directly in front of you but borderline useless when it comes to smacking into pedestrians. Many likewise seem to suffer from night blindness and become less effective at higher operating speeds.

That is something the NHTSA would like to address and made direct note of the issue in its proposal by stating there would need to be significant progress to advance pedestrian automatic emergency braking rulemaking. It likewise issued a Standing General Order to collect more data about crashes that occur when automated driving systems and advanced driver assistance systems are engaged.

With AEB reliant on sensor arrays (usually camera and/or radar arrays in the front bumper) some have argued that mandating them would further increase the cost of modern vehicles. Adding new hardware certainly would. But most vehicles produced today already have these systems and additional tech requirements being mandated in Europe (some of which are downright creepy) have already encouraged manufacturers to go on ahead with the process for North America.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) have likewise been pressuring the industry to implement AEB for years without any formal legislation coming into effect. So many of the largest automakers already include automatic braking as standard equipment.

But is it really going to be effective?

The NHTSA certainly seems to think so, alleging that the scheme would save at least 360 lives a year and reduce injuries by at least 24,000 annually.

“Today, we take an important step forward to save lives and make our roadways safer for all Americans,” stated Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “Just as lifesaving innovations from previous generations like seat belts and air bags have helped improve safety, requiring automatic emergency braking on cars and trucks would keep all of us safer on our roads.”  

From the NHTSA:

The proposed rule is a key component of the Department’s National Roadway Safety Strategy, which was launched in January 2022 to address the national crisis in traffic fatalities and serious injuries. The NRSS adopts the safe system approach and builds multiple layers of protection with safer roads, safer people, safer vehicles, safer speeds and better post-crash care. As part of the safe system approach, this rule highlights safer vehicles and USDOT’s effort to expand vehicle systems and features that help to prevent crashes.  
The NRSS is complemented by unprecedented safety funding included in President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and in February, the Department announced more than $800 million in grants to help communities carry out projects that can address high-crash areas. DOT also launched the next phase of the NRSS, its Call to Action campaign, and released a one-year progress report and accompanying data visualizations that highlight the extent and magnitude of the U.S. roadway safety problem.  

Of course, this is also baked into the “Complete Streets Design Model” the government is presently obsessed with. If you’re unfamiliar, the concept basically attempts to accommodate all roadway users by creating clear demarcations for pedestrians, cyclists, and automobiles. But it doesn’t really isolate them from each other with hard physical boundaries and often takes space away from automobiles (often lowering posted speed limits) to encourage alternative forms of transportation.

Your author believes a better solution would be to create dedicated bike and walking paths, separate from the spaces cars occupy. But that’s easier said than done in particularly dense urban environments and Complete Streets is seen as being more environmentally friendly than a two-lane blacktop where cars are provided more room to zip around at speeds they are accustomed to.

As for the NHTSA’s vision for automatic emergency braking systems, there would need to be some amount of standardization and a few benchmarks set. While that’s not yet been done, the agency does have a few targets it would like to see reached.

“We’ve seen the benefits of the AEB system in some passenger vehicles already even at lower speeds, and we want to expand the use of the technology to save even more lives. That’s why our proposed rule would require all cars to be able to stop and avoid contact with a vehicle in front of them up to 62 miles per hour. And the proposal would require pedestrian AEB, including requiring that AEB recognize and avoid pedestrians at night,” NHTSA Chief Counsel Ann Carlson said. “This proposed rule is a major safety advancement.”

For now, the DOT has said it will be focusing on having the NHTSA conduct an assessment of what’s actually feasible in anticipation of formal requirements. All new vehicles will be mandated to have AEB technology three years after the publication of a final rule — with exceptions being made for commercial vehicles and anything with a gross vehicle weight rating in excess of 10,000 pounds.

[Image: 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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2 of 31 comments
  • TheMrFreeze TheMrFreeze on Jun 06, 2023

    Wife and I bought just bought new (to us) daily drivers...both have manual transmissions and neither has any kind of "new" safety nanny technology in it. By choice. That's how we roll.

  • 56m65711446 56m65711446 on Jun 06, 2023

    ALL AEB systems should be tested using a SES executive from DoT as the test dummy.

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