Newbury, Berkshire – New ‘precrash’ systems allow cars to brake automatically and can cut the cost of insurance as well as prevent accidents. We put the technology to the test – and looked at some other ways to reduce the high cost of motoring.
Cars are getting smarter and soon they could be driving us rather than the other way around – with ‘driverless cars’ to be tested on British roads as soon as January 2015.
One safety system – autonomous emergency braking – is already here. Cars with the technology installed can perform an emergency stop automatically if drivers do not react in time.
To learn more about the system, I visited the Thatcham Research centre near Newbury, Berkshire, which is funded by motor insurance companies. The centre’s main aim is to test the safety features of cars, including auto-braking, through staged crashes on a test track and to help reduce the cost of motor insurance claims. This ultimately affects the premiums drivers pay.
It has different names depending on the make of car – Volvo calls it City Safety, while Ford calls it Active City Stop, for example. And it is not just the name that varies but the system type and quality as well.
Most focus on avoiding low-speed collisions in urban areas, at less than 50km/h, as these account for three-quarters of accidents and most whiplash claims. Some systems work at motorway speed.
The science powering auto-braking comes from Lidar, radar and cameras. Lidar (light detection and ranging) is the most basic. It emits lasers from a small panel on the windscreen behind the rearview mirror and can recognise common objects that help determine whether brakes should be applied.
Hand-sized square radars sit behind the grille at the front of a car. These can detect objects at a distance, while cameras at the top of a windscreen look out for obstacles. Some are not only able to spot cars but pedestrians and large animals, too.
Vehicles might use one or a combination of these features in their pre-crash systems and manufacturers could pay anywhere between £50 (R900) and £1500 (R27 500) to fit them, depending on the sophistication.
Before road testing a high-tech vehicle, I wondered what would happen if I wanted to accelerate but the car wanted to stop – would I end up ‘bunny-hopping’ down the road like a learner driver?
I already find self-checkouts at supermarkets infuriating – they rarely behave for me – so I wondered whether this would be equally challenging.
Then came visions of the science-fiction film I, Robot, when Will Smit’s character cannot flee demented robots because his car is controlled by them.
The experts reassure me that auto-braking kicks in only at the last moment when a crash is likely without the car’s intervention.
The function can also be switched off, if necessary – for example if the car needs to be towed – but there are safeguards to ensure this cannot be done by accident and that it will always revert to a default ‘on’ setting whenever the car is started up again.
First, I watched a demonstration of a Volvo V40 as it sped towards a ‘balloon’ car. This is a soft object designed to look like the rear end of another vehicle – a design trick necessary to fool sensors into detecting a genuine vehicle and avoiding a collision. It braked as normal. Next the balloon car was replaced with a ‘dummy’ child, positioned to look like a child crossing the road. I watched wide-eyed as the car knocked it over.
When I turned to one of the technicians with a look of horror, he explained the object was not life-like enough to fool the car, so it failed to recognise it.
On their official test-track they can make model pedestrians move as if they were actually crossing the road. Reluctant to volunteer my services as a human guinea pig for this, I decided to take his word for it. A second attempt with the dummy’s arm stretched out further worked. But this also served as a reminder that auto-braking is not a substitute for human driving – it acts to complement it and reduce the likelihood of accidents, which are caused by human error 90 per cent of the time.
When I sat behind the wheel, it felt counter-intuitive to drive faster towards a stationary object (if only my driving instructor, Martin, could have seen me), but I was egged on by the expert in the passenger seat. Thankfully, at the last fraction of a second, we stopped. I repeated the process and realised it could become an addictive pastime.
The fact that it activates so late also allays fears that our dependency on it will increase, turning us into a nation of distracted and lazy drivers. Most of the time our reactions will kick in first, in which case the auto-brakes will not be applied. But it should operate at the precise moment we do not realise we need it to. Thatcham Research figures show that the number of low-speed collisions among cars with the technology compared with vehicles without it is down by a fifth.
If only it had been available some years ago when another driver crunched into the back of my Ford Escort and wrote it off after I braked to let an ambulance pass at a junction. For good measure I also tried auto-braking backwards. The Nissan Infiniti Q50 uses upgraded parking sensors that not only alert you to obstructions but cause the car to brake, preventing you from hitting walls, vehicles and, most importantly people, when the car is reversing.
I came to a swift, safe stop – and that time the ‘dummy’ child remained upright.
Fewer crashes mean fewer claims and in turn lower costs for insurers, which should lead to cheaper premiums for drivers. Insurance brand More Than announced this month that it would offer a discount worth about 16 percent on car insurance for all new and existing customers who have auto-braking fitted in their car. Previously, esure and its sister brand, Sheila’s Wheels, also announced it would reduce premiums on selected models offered by Volvo, Mazda and Mercedes, which come with auto-braking as standard.
Auto-braking systems are not something you can fit yourself -car manufacturers have to do it, and they are doing so more and more.
Nearly a quarter of new cars on sale today have the braking system as optional or standard. Volvo now fits it as standard in all new vehicles. Unfortunately, the difference in car insurance premiums may not turn out to be that great for those adding the technology, but it is worth considering for anybody buying a new car. A retired man aged 65, living in Reading and driving a Volvo V40 would save £45 (R820) a year with esure. But some drivers will save more depending on car type, age and postcode. For example, a 25-year-old female student in Kingston upon Thames driving a Mazda could save £143 (R2600) a year with More Than.
Andrew Lowe, head of motor insurance at esure, said: “We believe there are significant safety benefits for drivers who choose a car fitted with autonomous emergency braking, particularly with regard to minimising low-speed accidents and reducing the severity of other accidents.”
“We’ve also seen more cars fitted with the systems outside of the top range, which will hopefully encourage more drivers to consider a car fitted with AEB as a potential future purchase.”