Expert Commentary

Backseat Driving: Do You Trust Your Car?

Imagine a cold, snowy day where it's as dark as twilight even though the clock says it's noon. As you descend a steep hill, you apply even pressure to your brakes, and the antilock braking system (ABS) controls the tire slip with incredible finesse, allowing you to steer around an obstacle without losing control of the vehicle or sliding on the slippery road surface.

Personal Risk Management
August 2016

At the bottom of the hill, the antilock braking system (ABS) brings you to a safe stop at the red traffic light. Looking in your rearview mirror, you see another vehicle (perhaps with a novice driver and no active, integrated assistance system) sliding out of control down the hill with all wheels locked. As that car picks up velocity, you look both ways and decide you'll have to cross the empty intersection to avoid a collision.

Traction control systems (TCS) silently control the power application to the wheels so that you maximize traction and minimize slippage. Your car slowly, but calmly, moves across the intersection. You see the other car stop in the middle of the intersection facing the wrong way, having spun 180 degrees.

Antilock brakes, traction control, and even "backup" cameras are pretty common on most sedans and SUVs these days. They can be very helpful in avoiding crashes, but some newer technology may be less familiar or may be greeted with the same types of skepticism that these "validated" systems once endured.

We have become more accustomed to certain "advanced driver assistance systems"  over time since we've had time to practice with them, learn how they feel and operate differently, and understand how to change our own behaviors (don't pump brakes when you've got ABS, don't punch the accelerator and expect a kick of power when TCS suggests a smoother acceleration curve, etc.). In short, we've learned to trust these systems based on practice and experience.

Still, there are many new systems being introduced as a result of the keen interest in developing self-driving cars and trucks. While many people remain highly skeptical of a world where vehicles may have no direct user controls (such as a steering wheel or gas and brake pedals), the research being completed and tested for such a future can help us save lives right here, right now.

What's Out There, Now?

Identifying and learning about all of the immediate options available on various makes and models can be a challenge. Even the terminology used to describe the systems varies by manufacturer and safety expert. Each manufacturer tends to have its own "brand name" for each system, and safety specialists sometimes will refer to either a brand name or use a generic reference to describe a technology system.

Fortunately, the University of Iowa and National Safety Council have teamed up to produce a highly informative Web  portal at The "About " section of this portal states its mission is to "help educate drivers on new vehicle safety technologies designed to help prevent crashes. These technologies range from increasing the stability and control of cars to providing warnings about crash threats to automatically intervening to avoid or reduce the severity of a crash."

Thirty-eight specific systems are named, described, and explained within the following five broad categories of driver assistance.

  • Forward collision prevention
  • Braking, tire pressure, and antirollover
  • Driver state monitoring and communication
  • Parking and backing up assistance
  • Lane and side assistance

All of these systems can help avoid various types of collisions. Some may appear to be driver "convenience" items, such as the ability to monitor tire pressure from the dashboard or using cameras to augment mirrors in detecting objects in "blind zones"; however, many of the new systems have the ability to take control of the vehicle if the driver fails to react in time. This is not a new concept. ABS takes control of the braking sequence to maximize tire grip on the road while allowing for limited release of the brakes, which allows the wheel to turn instead of lock up. Drivers have come to realize that the pulsing brake pedal is an indicator that the system is engaged. Further, ABS doesn't fully take control of the vehicle since it only maximizes the brake system efficiency during panic maneuvers.

Compare ABS to parallel park assist in luxury cars that takes over full operation of the car while parking on city streets. The use of parallel park assist is voluntary, and the driver has likely practiced at the dealership or on side streets before fully trusting its operation in challenging circumstances. Some of the newer systems, however, take control of the car in different ways that make some drivers nervous.

Forward Collision Warning and Automatic Emergency Braking

By using lasers, radar, and cameras, the new forward collision warning (FCW)  systems can detect objects in the road (or near the lane on either side) and distinguish these shapes using an object library. Once the object is classified as a bike, a pedestrian, or another vehicle, the system can determine whether the object is crossing your path, coming toward you, or going away from your current position. In considering the object's relative speed, direction, and size, a threat assessment can be made with 1 in 1000 confidence and an audible warning can be issued to the driver. The goal of the warning is to get the driver's attention refocused on the immediate threat so that he or she can take preemptive action.

What happens if the driver takes no action? Well, barring the presence of additional safety technology  like automatic emergency braking (AEB), a collision is likely to occur. However, if the vehicle is equipped with AEB, it can take control in one of two key ways: it may prime the braking system so that a driver's late reaction will have a stronger than normal response, or it may actually activate the brakes to decelerate the vehicle while monitoring the closure rate. The vehicle will either slow to reduce the severity of the impact or will successfully stop to avoid the collision outright.

Many drivers express skepticism that the car would be a better pilot than the human driver, and others fear false alerts with braking events occurring when not justified. A car or truck that suddenly stops in the travel lane for a false alarm would make a very large target for the following vehicle.

Skepticism or Fear?

Volvo just sponsored an online survey that gathered 50,000 responses from drivers across the United States. The survey was titled "Future of Driving" and asked about comfort levels with autonomous (self-driving) vehicles.

Some of the report's preliminary findings, which were published June 29, 2016, in Automotive Fleet magazine in the article "Video: N.Y., Calif. More Eager for Autonomous Cars," are as follows.

[A] total of 90% of New Yorkers and 86% of Californians feel that autonomous cars could make life easier.… Residents in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Texas are less convinced than the average American about the safety benefits of autonomous driving. Only about half (52%) of Illinois respondents would trust an autonomous car to make decisions about safety, 10% less than the national average, according to survey results.

Clearly, some commuters and daily drivers are eager for the new technology, and others are much more skeptical.

From a fleet manager's perspective, the numbers alone may make the early adoption of FCW/AEB systems necessary. In one example reported by Paul Clinton in "Sheriff's Collision Avoidance System Combats Rear-End Crashes," published on February 17, 2016, in Government Fleet magazine, the Polk County, Florida, Sheriff's Department made the decision to install a system offering "forward-collision warning, pedestrian collision warning, headway monitoring, lane departure warning, and a speed limit indicator." With nearly 600 vehicles to retrofit, it's no small decision or small cost. However, in the year prior to the decision, there were two rear-end collisions valued at roughly a half-million dollars. The cost of the mitigation system (about $740 per vehicle) is easily justified, considering the fleet operates more than a million miles of driving per month.

In addition to the testimonials of fleets who have adopted these systems, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) recently conducted its own study of both FCW-equipped vehicles and those equipped with both FCW and AEB. In their report, "Crashes Avoided: Front Crash Prevention Slashes Police-ReportedRear-End Crashes," published on January 28, 2016, they stated the following. 

Vehicles equipped with front crash prevention are much less likely to rear-end other vehicles, IIHS has found in the first study of the feature's effectiveness using U.S. police-reported crash data.

Systems with automatic braking reduce rear-end crashes by about 40 percent on average, while forward collision warning alone cuts them by 23 percent, the study found. The autobrake systems also greatly reduce injury crashes.

If all vehicles had been equipped with autobrake that worked as well as the systems studied, there would have been at least 700,000 fewer police-reported rear-end crashes in 2013. That number represents 13 percent of police-reported crashes overall.

With this sort of effectiveness, fleet managers and individual family drivers are beginning to take notice. The risks of not using the new technology already exist. Rear-end collisions are one of the most common and most expensive claim types that insurers must deal with in the course of a policy period. Not only is the insured driver more than 50 percent negligent for failing to allow a proper following distance or stopping in time to avoid the collision, some form of distraction or other impairment may also be involved that further complicates any defense strategy that might be employed. It is far better to avoid such claims than to have to defend them.


Do you have faith that these systems will operate as advertised? Or does it all seem too good to be true? Do you trust your car or truck to take control when it has decided that you missed the opportunity to react and corrects to avoid the collision? How much practice and experience do you think we need to be truly comfortable with the new systems? Could these systems encourage people to take greater risks or drive while distracted by trusting the vehicle to drive for them?

Drivers will be left to decide their own reactions and willingness to accept the inclusion of these safety systems on vehicles, but there is no dispute that these safety systems have the potential (and in some instances have already demonstrated their practical applications) to save lives, reduce crashes, and avoid needless physical damage too.

Advanced driver assistance systems that remain on alert at all times and vigilantly watch the road around us can be a key part of reducing collisions as traffic congestion continues to grow.

This article was prepared by Paul Farrell in my personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not reflect the view of my employer. This article is offered as an opinion or informational piece and should not be confused as any sort of professional advice.

Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

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