WASHINGTON - Devices intended to keep motorists out of crashes supposedly are the next big thing in automotive safety. But they are encountering a big speed bump.
The problem: No one knows for sure how to test the effectiveness of such devices, says Adrian Lund, COO of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research group for auto insurers.
"Our electronics industry is in full gear, pedal to the metal" to sell crash-avoidance equipment, says Lund. But safety groups don't know how much of a difference the devices will make, he contends.
Uncertainty could delay sales
Lund's caution suggests automakers may introduce the devices, also called active safety systems, more slowly than suppliers would like.
But Phil Cunningham, product planning director for chassis systems at TRW Automotive Inc., says he is confident suppliers of the technology will prove the value of what he calls "driver-support" devices.
"I'm certain of it," Cunningham says. "But it will take time."
TRW, of Livonia, Mich., is a major developer of active safety systems.
Crash-avoidance devices warn motorists when their cars drift out of lanes. The technology also signals when an intersection collision is imminent and automatically slows a vehicle if it gets too close to a car in front of it.
Dr. Jeffrey Runge, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is a proponent of crash avoidance. NHTSA is launching a research program to determine which devices work.
On July 19 it solicited data from automakers, suppliers and other parties. The deadline for comment is Aug. 18.
Lund says the challenge for safety researchers is accounting for the human element in the use of the technology.
Testing the effectiveness of so-called passive safety devices such as seat belts and airbags is straightforward. Technicians measure the forces on test dummies in a variety of crash simulations.
The insurance institute, for example, is known for its high-speed offset frontal impact test. Its new side-impact test simulates the effect of a higher-riding pickup or SUV hitting the sides of test vehicles.
The human factor
But safety groups don't know how to account for human reactions to crash-avoidance devices, Lund says.
Drivers may grow annoyed by lane-departure warning systems and turn them off, he suggests. Or they may take curves too confidently at night because they have headlights that aim beams where wheels are turned, he says.
Five years of real-world experience elapsed before strong evidence emerged about the effectiveness of electronic stability control, a crash-avoidance technology on the market, Lund says.
Electronic stability control uses sensors, throttle controls and individual wheel braking to keep vehicles from sliding out of control.
Antilock brakes looked great under test-track conditions, Lund says. But the technology has not made a measurable difference in safety, he argues.
ABS, Lund jokes, "has saved innumerable orange cones" on test tracks.