There has been a lot of coverage in the news about automatic/autonomous braking systems. The newspaper and magazine articles are heralding the new systems as the greatest thing since the seat belt. Most of the journalists need a reality check. These systems are on some 2014 cars, but only work at lower speeds and still leave a lot up to the driver and the manufacturers’ legal departments.
Most of these systems use radar and cameras to detect a potential collision. The systems compile the information, calculates the best course of action if and when the driver intervenes, and at what speed it will take over. If driver intervention is required at high speeds, the system might build up brake pressure in the hydraulic control unit and maybe bring the pads closer to the rotor. Some systems will apply a certain percentage of the brakes.
These automatic systems still put the burden of braking on the driver. If the driver rear-ends another vehicle, it is still the driver’s fault. Why don’t these systems take over and stop the car if they can react faster? Simple, no automaker wants to be responsible for a life and death decision, it would expose them to liabilities that would make stockholders cringe and class act attorneys very excited.
There are fully automatic/autonomous systems on the market, but they only operated at low speeds where the chance of life-threatening injuries are very low. Mercedes Benz and Volvo are offering vehicles with full-auto braking for pedestrians and other hazards. These safety devices come with more disclaimers and stipulation than a Publisher’s Clearing House contest.
The pedestrian systems operate at only at speeds below 22 mph for the Volvo and 30 mph for the Mercedes Benz. These systems can be thrown off by a extremely short person under 31-inches tall or a pedestrian carrying a large shopping bag. Volvo also warns that rain, snow or low sun might prevent the system from recognizing something in the road.
This is not the future. These are just barely functional systems restricted more by lawyers than available technology.
However, there is a need for these systems, as 40 percent of drivers fail to hit the brakes in a crash. Why? It takes the average driver a little under a second to recognize there is a situation that might require the brakes.
This grim percentage was part of a recent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) report. Even if a driver recognizes a problem, they might not be able to generate enough pedal pressure to stop the car. Pre-braking, assist or other systems that can help apply the brakes if a possible collision is detected.
But, what happens when a brake assist system gets it wrong? It could be a defective piece of software, damaged radar sensor or a condition that just could not have been anticipated at the proving grounds. If you thought the Toyota fiasco was big, wait until a lawyer gets a hold of one of these cases.
What will happen to these systems when they start to rack up the miles? Will cheap pad slaps and worn rotors result in the systems not being able to stop in time? Will rusty brake lines burst when an assisted panic stop is performed?