Editor's note: A sidebar with this story, which also appeared on Page 40 of the Aug. 19 issue, mischaracterized Subaru's "EyeSight" package. It allows a Subaru to automatically brake when the speed differential between the Subaru and a vehicle ahead is less than 19 mph.
RUCKERSVILLE, Va. -- They come with names like City Safety, Smart City, EyeSight, Distronic Plus and Pre-Safe. They promise to watch out for the things you don't notice and react to them before you have a chance to.
They are the new generation of crash-prevention technologies, the next frontier in automotive safety. Automakers are marketing them aggressively, charging hundreds or thousands of dollars for add-on packages with such features as automated braking, lane-departure warning and adaptive cruise control. Researchers and Silicon Valley futurists see them as the building blocks of so-called autonomous vehicles, whose interacting sensors and software can outthink drivers and virtually eliminate the risk of car accidents.
But as the marketing machines and tech blogs hum, a complex question hangs over the whole field of crash-prevention features: Do they work, in the real world, well enough to trust over a driver's own reflexes?
Researchers are used to crashing cars into barriers to see how they fare, but the new wave of technology defies such techniques. "How do you prove effectiveness with a crash that never happened?" asked David Strickland, the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in an interview this summer.