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Market Insight: More self-braking cars now, says expert

It starts here: University of Adelaide researcher Professor Robert Anderson says active braking needs to be on more cars a lot sooner to help cut the road toll.

Active braking could cut the road toll as dramatically as seatbelts, airbags, ESC

Market Insight logo13 May 2013

CAR-MAKERS need to move faster with the roll-out of self-braking cars to make significant inroads on Australia’s road toll, a safety expert has warned.

Associate Professor Robert Anderson, deputy director of the University of Adelaide's Centre for Automotive Safety Research, warned it could be as late as 2020 before the real-world benefits of cars that can sense a collision and either reduce or avoid it would have a positive impact on our roads.

He said active braking had the same potential as the introduction of seatbelts, airbags and even electronic stability control in dramatically reducing the death toll on Australian roads.

“With ESC (electronic stability control, which helps a car recover from a skid) it was quite a few years before we saw any effects on the road toll, because at the start not every car had it,” Prof Anderson said.

“You have to wait for quite a few years before you see data in the real world, so I would predict you would see the data from (active braking) coming through by 2019 or 2020 before we have enough information to say it is working.” Key to that, he said, was encouraging car-makers to roll the systems out more rapidly than they were now, so that the number of cars on Australian roads featuring active braking systems built quickly.

“ESC tends to be an old car problem with a loss of control by particularly young drivers. It’s taken a long time for the data from loss-of-control crashes to come through so we can pick it up,” Mr Anderson said.

“(Active braking) crashes tend to be very different types of crashes, particularly if pedestrians are involved, and with critical mass we could pick up the data a lot more quickly.” He said the university was developing a crash test program to allow it to rank how well these new systems were working, although devising the right test to weigh up a system’s performance was still in its infancy worldwide.

“It’s still at a stage where I think crash testing was many years ago, back to the 1970s when crash tests were first being developed,” he said.

In the meantime, the only way that independent crash test authorities such as ANCAP could reward car-makers for including technology that can potentially avoid hurting other road users – including pedestrians – is by giving vehicles a leg-up in their final score, Prof Anderson said.

“To be fair, it (giving bonus points) is not really scientific, but we felt we had to start encouraging car-makers to include those sorts of technologies,” he said. “It was the best thing we could think of at the time.” However, this complicates things when, for instance, car-makers provide a vehicle with anti-crash technology, but down on the airbag count. It also doesn’t account for factors such as wet-weather braking performance, where low-rolling resistance tyres sometimes struggle.

Also complicating things is a number of different technologies using varied methods of detecting other cars and pedestrians, such as cameras, radar and “lidar” – using laser beams to map out a 3-D representation of the road ahead of the car.

Prof Anderson said it would help car-makers if all were to adopt the one technology, so that a single module would suit all vehicles in the same way almost all cars use the same electronic stability control module as a key part of their safety system.

He said the next step was to break through the systems’ low-speed thresholds to make them work at any speed.

“It’s the high speeds that are the greatest risk of death and injury to road users,” Prof Anderson said. “We’d like to see these systems developed so they work at all speeds, and not just low speeds.

“Everyone has got different systems and different ways of doing things, but in the end we just want them to work as programmed.” A number of car-makers including Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW, Subaru and Volkswagen have introduced active braking on vehicles priced from as low as $13,990 before on-road costs.

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