Shut Out From Safety: Crash Avoidance Tech We Can't Buy
Honda, Ford and Volkswagen offer auto-braking and more active safety features on average cars. Why not here?
My biggest YouTube cravings, out of hundreds listed in my browser history, are hip-hop music videos, alleged clips of the Chechen mafia, and Will Ferrell drinking Old Milwaukee beer. But in between creepy scenes from “A Clockwork Orange” and Justin Bieber kissing Selena Gomez, I’ve clicked on dozens of crash-test videos. In fact, that’s all I watched for the past hour.
Unlike 90 percent of YouTube, these videos are records of incredible progress, a mortifying and satisfying conclusion that we’re much likelier to survive car crashes now that could have killed us just 15 years ago. They also ignite my darkest fears, which, aside from gun crime, I try to ignore each time my fiancée rolls down the driveway in her Jeep. But mostly, I try to be positive. That’s the take-home message I got from Ola Bostrom, a man who studies crash tests for a living.
“If you buy a brand-new minicar today, you are safer than if you bought a large car in the '80s,” says Bostrom, the director of biomechanics and restraints at Autoliv, a safety parts supplier and research company in Sweden. (Even the '90s were bad: Check out this 1997 Pontiac Transport minivan crash and compare it with the compact 2011 Nissan Juke.)
While today’s autonomous vehicles could end car accidents altogether, our imperfect roads are hardly optimized for full computer control. But the breakthroughs that make the Google car possible – active safety features such as lane keeping and auto-braking – mark the beginning of the most significant, lifesaving era in car safety since the seatbelt. (Enforcing laws and stowing smartphones, well, that’ll never happen.)
So what if you can’t afford to buy an expensive European or Japanese car with these latest safety features? In Europe, active safety is less about money and nameplate status. It’s soon to be a points game, where the latest models rated by the European New Car Assessment Program will be scored, in part, on how many active safety features they offer. Currently, the agency “awards” automakers that include these features and offers points to vehicles with active seatbelt reminders or other related equipment.
America, a car market just realizing the benefits of quality small cars and diesels, is again last in line with these technological advances. Here, you have to spend upward of $40,000 to get beyond blind-spot monitoring and collision alerts. In Europe, you can buy a Honda Accord or a Ford Focus with automatic braking.
Why not here? Even for identical overseas models like the Focus, automakers think American buyers won’t pay extra for a feature they don’t really understand. Plus, Americans have a habit of suing as many people and things as possible. As the Toyota recalls proved, we may need to educate ourselves first on what “N” means on the gear lever thingy.
“In Europe, it’s easier [to add active safety features] because the cars are more expensive,” says Volkswagen spokesman Mark Gillies. “Here, cars are a lot cheaper and it’s more difficult to make a profit.”
Oddly enough, Volkswagen restricted its most advanced feature, City Emergency Braking, on its cheapest car, the up!, which went on sale in Europe last year. It’s a $15,000 car that uses laser sensors to stop itself, just like a $45,000 Volvo S60. Gillies said this feature -- along with lane-keeping assist, which nudges the steering wheel back in line -- will be offered in a similar safety package on the next-generation Golf, due in Europe later this year. The U.S. Golf will likely see the features in late 2013.
The Driver Assistance Pack on the Ford Focus is a $1,700 option that includes Active City Stop, another full auto-braking system, and Driver Alert, a drowsiness detection system that warns the driver to take a break if he’s driving erratically. Mercedes puts this sort of system standard in the $35,000-plus C-Class. Ford says it will offer Lane Keeping Aid and Driver Alert on the 2013 Fusion and Explorer and several Lincoln models, but has no plans to sell Active City Stop on any U.S. models.
Honda goes way back with its Collision Mitigation Braking System, first offered on Japanese models in 2003. Currently, the hydrogen-powered FCX Clarity, a rare bird, is the only U.S. Honda to include the feature, which first warns the driver by tugging at the seatbelt and brakes if there is no human response (it cannot bring the car to a full stop). The top-end Acura RL, as well as the MDX and ZDX sport-utilities, are the only other U.S. models with the feature, and Honda says it has no plans to expand it elsewhere. Europeans can order an Accord or CR-V with the feature. (The 2013 Accord, due later this year, will include collision alert and lane-departure warning, both which cannot take control from the driver.)
However, it’s Chevrolet that’s really getting active. The 2014 Impala, long a rental-car special, will receive the 2013 Accord’s alerts plus an auto-braking system, adaptive cruise control (which automatically paces the car in front), and blind-spot warnings with cross-traffic alert (very helpful when backing out of a crowded parking lot). Cadillac, of course, is going further by jolting the driver with vibrating alerts built into the seat, a world first on the new ATS and XTS. The European Opel Astra (remember the Saturn version?) offers lane-departure warning, an option that can be found only on the GMC Terrain in the U.S. Blind spot monitoring will debut on the 2013 Buick Enclave, but it’s a rarity, as is any other active safety feature, in the rest of the GM lineup.
What have we learned? Despite the progress, there’s a big disparity between non-luxury brands in Europe versus America. The most promising active safety features, such as auto-braking, are already affordable options on overseas Hondas and Fords -- cheaper than many factory navigation systems. It’s an annoying vestige of the industry, like when 1990s pickup trucks only offered rear-wheel anti-lock brakes to save a few bucks.
If you’re worried, like me, about surviving an accident, Autoliv’s Bostrom has a better idea: “Buy a 10-year-old Saab.”
They also ignite my darkest fears, which, aside from gun crime, I try to ignore each time my fiancée rolls down the driveway in her Jeep.Mr Atiyeh... you, the auto journalist, how could you allow for the stereotype to happen: an American female riding high in her huge, honking pile of metal, unnecessarily consuming huge amounts of fuel in an armored personnel carrier? It seems You could have used Your charm and insight to sway her towards a more intelligent choice... changes in society start from within each and every person, like a ripple effect.
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