Car-safety features stuck in slow lane
Washington — Twenty automakers pledged to the Obama administration they would commit to voluntarily equip all of their passenger vehicles with automatic emergency braking by September 2022, but less than a quarter of the manufacturers appear to be on pace to hit the target.
Safety advocates say the remaining automakers have little incentive to keep their promises regarding safety technologies because President Donald Trump’s administration, which has yet to nominate a director for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has shown no urgency about enforcing the deadline — or, for that matter, pushing for other life-saving technologies.
NHTSA says only four of 20 automakers in 2017 equipped at least half of their U.S. models with standard automatic emergency brakes, which automatically apply the brakes when a front collision is imminent.
The highest rates were for luxury brands such as Tesla and Mercedes-Benz. Among mass-market companies, Toyota Motor Corp. fitted the devices to 56 percent of its 2017 fleet, compared with 30 percent for Honda Motor Co., 20 percent for General Motors Co., and less than 10 percent for Ford Motor Co. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV offered automatic emergency braking on only 6 percent of its 2017 fleet, according to NHTSA.
In January, Ford said it would make the automatic brakes standard on half of its cars by 2019. The company said also said it will comply with the voluntary agreement for 2022.
The Trump administration has predicted that automakers will soon pick up the pace.
“With each model year, manufacturers will increasingly utilize technology to allow vehicles to ‘see’ the world around them and navigate it more safely,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in a statement when the statistics were released in December.
It’s not just automatic brakes that automakers are lagging behind on. NHTSA announced in 2014 that backup cameras would be required for all new manufactured vehicles after mid-2018. But the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Highway Loss Data Institute says it will take until 2039 before 95 percent of registered vehicles, which also takes into account older legacy cars, will be equipped with rear cameras.
IIHS estimated just 24 percent of the U.S. registered car fleet had backup cameras in 2016, but the group says rear cameras are now standard on virtually all new models — which will satisfy the federal requirement.
IIHS said rear parking sensors, which alert drivers to obstacles they may encounter while parking and are not subject to a federal mandate, will take even longer to become commonplace. They won’t reach that milestone until 2041.
The insurance institute has estimated that it usually takes about 30 years for safety features to become standard on automobiles. The group said other technologies like forward-collision warning, blind-spot monitoring and lane-departure warning, which are not currently subject to federal regulations, are not projected to be standard on 95 percent of registered cars until 2043.
Automatic emergency brakes will not reach that level of ubiquity until 2045. And adaptive headlights, which adjust to increase visibility around curves and over hills, won’t be commonplace until after 2050.
Automakers are promising to soon deliver fully self-driving cars that they say will greatly reduce the number of crashes that occur on U.S. highways. John Simpson, privacy project director at the Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog group, said automakers would prevent more crashes in the near term if they focused instead on increasing the prevalence of driver-assist technologies, such as automatic emergency braking in cars, that are already in production.
“We are skeptical of a lot of autonomous-vehicle self-driving technology. We don’t think that’s been proven safe enough, but demonstrable automated techniques like automated emergency-braking should be mandated,” said Simpson, who noted that his group unsuccessfully petitioned NHTSA to make the automatic emergency braking requirement mandatory.
“We did not think that the voluntary accord was anywhere near adequate and early indications are, at least from what I’ve seen, that the current administration doesn’t seem to care very much about enforcing it. It needed to be mandatory, and it was not.”
Russ Rader, senior vice president of communications for IIHS, said automakers are following “a typical pattern for advanced safety features” with their slow roll-out of automatic emergency braking and other driver-assist features that have been touted as potential lifesavers.
“The automakers introduce a technology like side air bags, electronic stability control or (automatic emergency braking); it’s optional at first or standard on luxury models and high-end trims,” he said in an email. “Then, as researchers determine technologies are effective, NHTSA requires them — or in the case of AEB, NHTSA and IIHS worked together to push for a commitment from the automakers to make AEB standard across the board by 2022.”
Rader added that automatic emergency braking “is the most effective of the latest crop of advanced technologies, reducing front-into-rear crashes reported to police by 50 percent,” although he said other technologies are also showing benefits.
Rebecca Lindland, executive analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said automakers are grappling with the cost of adding safety features to cars that are already expensive in the view of most consumers.
“The average transaction price of a vehicle is higher than it’s ever been before,” she said, noting the average sale price is approaching $36,000. “It’s putting a significant strain on consumers because it is stretching out loans to 72 and 84 months, whereas before it used to be 48 or 60 months.”
Lindland said that reality is forcing costumers to sometimes have to choose between safety features and other popular vehicle enhancements such as navigation or Bluetooth capability.
“Along with all the other regulations that are going,” she said, “ I don’t think we could turn to manufacturers and say ‘You need to make these standard’ without expecting them to raise prices.”
William Wallace, senior policy analyst at Consumers Union, acknowledged automakers have made “some progress” with increasing the availability of driver-assist features, but he said they need to do much more to make this lifesaving technology standard in cars other than luxury vehicles.
“Consumers shouldn’t be forced to pay extra or buy pricey add-ons to have proven safety features like automatic emergency braking,” he said in an email.