TOKYO -- Subaru, in the wake of accolades for its EyeSight safety technology package, will debut a new generation of the pre-crash safety system next year with significantly upgraded functions.
The new version of the system gets a better camera, automated steering assist, lane-keeping technology, more auto-braking power, adaptive cruise control and more.
The better safety features could spur sales of EyeSight -- and by extension, top-trim models -- in the United States, where only 8 percent of Subaru buyers spring for the pricey add-on.
In Japan, by contrast, about 80 percent of all Subarus leaving the lot are sold with the EyeSight pre-crash safety system.
Subaru says it sells the technology at near cost, but EyeSight typically is bundled into higher-margin, top-trim levels.
The factory and dealers like that because it moves buyers to higher-priced versions of the vehicles they want, said Kurt Sanger, an auto analyst with Deutsche Securities Japan. "This helps them sell cars," he said.
Subaru will deploy the upgraded technology in a new vehicle scheduled for release in Japan next year, said Naoto Muto, executive vice president in charge of r&d at Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., Subaru's parent company.
Subaru did not identify the nameplate. But it could be the redesigned Legacy, given Subaru's product cadence.
Executives said they aim to bring the new EyeSight system to the United States. But they declined to give a timeline.
The improved safety system will burnish safety credentials that got a big endorsement from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety on Sept. 27. IIHS gave the Legacy and Outback top honors in its first ratings of automatic braking systems because EyeSight detected a dummy car on the road ahead and braked the car from 25 mph to a stop without slamming into it.
The IIHS rating and the eventual introduction of the next-generation system should spur U.S. penetration of EyeSight, said Toshio Masuda, corporate vice president for product planning.
"In America, it's offered only in a limited number of high-grade versions of some models," Masuda said. Americans are still unfamiliar with what EyeSight is and how it works, he added. "We're still in the stage of explaining the technology."
Subaru introduced EyeSight to the United States in August 2012. Today it is offered in only the Legacy, Outback and Forrester.
By contrast, the system has been on sale in Japan since 2010 and is offered on every vehicle except Subaru's BRZ sporty coupe and its line of Daihatsu-supplied minicars, vehicles with 660cc engines. In Japan, Subaru has sold 150,000 EyeSight-equipped vehicles.
Subaru said the EyeSight camera system, supplied by Hitachi Automotive Systems, costs around ¥100,000 ($1,020). While selling it near cost, the company has managed to eke wider profit margins as sales volume grows, Masuda said.
EyeSight is part of a package that lifts the price of a 2014 Legacy 2.5i Premium to $26,830 vs. $24,090 for the base 2.5i Premium. The base 2014 Legacy 2.5i carries a sticker price of $22,090, including $1,000 for the optional continuously variable transmission that is standard in the 2.5i Premium. All prices including shipping.
The revised EyeSight gets a lengthy list of improvements.
The revamped stereo camera has a 40 percent wider and longer range of visibility, improving its scan of potential trouble.
It also enables more sensitive adaptive cruise control. Because the camera senses color, it can detect red brake lights. That allows for better tracking of traffic patterns and a quicker response when cars ahead are speeding up or slowing down.
Subaru also has added lane-keeping technology and a lane-departure prevention function. Both feature automated steering assist controls to nudge stray drivers gently back on course.
The upcoming EyeSight also gets improved auto-braking power. Today's system can stop a car before collision if the speed differential between the Subaru and the car or obstacle ahead is less than 19 mph, the company says, although IIHS said the system worked fine at 25 mph. The new system delivers stopping power at speed differentials up to 31 mph, the company says.
Also, a new auto-brake kicks in when there is a sudden, unintended acceleration in reverse. This is geared toward parking-lot fender benders when a driver thinks the car is in drive but has mistakenly slipped it into reverse.
Finally, Subaru throws in a new hazard avoidance assist system that determines whether a collision is possible and then assists the driver in steering around the obstacle.
The rollout of new safety technologies is part of Subaru's attempt to rebrand itself as a family-oriented safety brand and not just an outdoorsy all-wheel-drive specialist.
Part of the challenge will be parlaying safety into sales.
Buyers still cite all-wheel drive and reliability as their top reasons for buying a Subaru, ahead of safety, according to Jon Osborn, research director at J.D. Power and Associates.
Across the industry, safety ranks only in the middle of the most important reasons for choosing a vehicle. Reliability, exterior styling, fuel economy, price, handling, reputation and brand experience are all bigger factors in making a purchase, according to J.D. Power's 2013 Initial Quality Study.
"Part of the reason that safety technologies tend to get less consumer attention is that consumers expect the vehicles to be safe," said John Tews, a J.D. Power spokesman. "So they tend to migrate toward infotainment technologies and technologies that will help improve fuel economy."