By Jennifer Morrison
As an accident investigator for the NTSB, I find that walking the floor of the 2014 Washington Auto Show provides a much nicer environment for photographing vehicles than my more usual setting, on the scene of major highway crash investigations. Generally speaking, vehicles are much easier to photograph when they are intact and in one piece. The cars, trucks, and SUV’s on display at the Washington Auto Show were more than simply intact; they were in pristine condition and begging to have their images captured.
Strolling among the new vehicles at the show, I began to recognize just how far many of these vehicles have come in terms of safety over the past few years. With more and more competition between manufacturers and demand from the public, advanced safety systems are not only emerging, they are taking main stage. When attending the show in 2010 I recall searching for cars and trucks that offered collision warning, lane departure, or blind spot monitoring systems – and found only two. But today, nearly every manufacturer was exhibiting some sort of collision avoidance system. They come by many names: Chevrolet’s Forward Collision Alert, Subaru’s EyeSight, Mercedes-Benz’s Pre-Safe and Attention Assist, and Volvo’s IntelliSafe, just to name a few. And today, these systems can not only warn a driver about a dangerous situation, they can do something about it. These increasingly intelligent systems, for which the NTSB has been advocating since the mid-1990’s, can now apply the vehicle’s brakes or re-center the vehicle in the lane to avoid a collision.
This year’s show continues the industry’s march toward so-called “autonomous” vehicles. Some might find the idea of such vehicle intervention concerning. That’s understandable; as an accident-investigation agency, we at the NTSB understand all too well that things can and do go horribly wrong. Luckily, we have had an inside view of how these advanced safety systems have been developed long before the term “autonomous” was coined. The term “autonomous”, although it sounds scary, can mean many things. At its most basic, it can mean a vehicle that limits loss of traction situations, a technology already in place and required for all passenger vehicles manufactured after 2012, known as electronic stability control (or ESC). Taking the same idea further could mean that a vehicle limits collision situations, like with the collision avoidance systems on display at the auto show, or it could mean that it limits human driving altogether.
So while advocating for collision avoidance systems, as the NTSB has done in such cases as the 2009 10-fatal multi-vehicle crash in Miami, Oklahoma and the 2010 fatal school bus accident in Gray Summit, Missouri, we are advocating for some level of autonomous vehicles. Autonomous, however, does not necessarily mean driverless. With the increased attention and scrutiny of autonomous vehicles, auto manufacturers will weigh the pros and cons and deliver vehicles that the public will continue to drive for quite some time. The introduction of ESC systems on vehicles has saved thousands of lives, and now collision avoidance systems are available options even on low-to-moderately priced vehicles, with the potential to save many more lives in the years ahead. That’s a good thing because these technologies should be standard at all car levels; safety shouldn’t be a luxury. We all need to remember that more than 30,000 lives area lost each year on our nation’s highways, and we all have vulnerable moments behind the wheel. If we want to address these facts, getting more comfortable with the term “autonomous” requires at least some consideration.
Jennifer Morrison is a Vehicle Factors Engineer in NTSB’s Office of Highway Safety.