New Safety Testing By IIHS Yields Mixed Results – Does Pedestrian Auto-Braking Really Work?

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Pedestrian crash prevention systems are becoming very common. Not all of them work. Here’s a rundown of which automakers have figured it out.

This week, the Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) released the results of a round of testing on midsize vehicles. The tests conducted were to see which systems that promise to prevent vehicles from hitting pedestrians actually work. It turns out that some work great, some pretty well, and some don’t do anything of value. What we at BestRide found most interesting about the test results was that the cost of the automobile had no correlation with the effectiveness of the safety system. Two mainstream models, the Subaru Outback (starting at just $28K) and the Nissan Maxima (starting at $36K) were included in the very best of the models. Their systems topped those on models from Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Tesla. It is important to note the Nissan and Subaru systems are standard on every one of the Maximas and Outbacks sold. This is not a pricey option but something you get at no added cost. Unfortunately, the testing revealed that the systems from three other manufacturers had no meaningful benefit.

Where Did Pedestrian Crash Prevention Come From?

About five years ago, forward collision prevention with automatic emergency braking went mainstream. Like many new technologies, this important safety technology went from being a luxury-only technology to mainstream in a flash. The folks in government who we pay to protect us from ourselves noticed that the technology had great promise. Deep in the heart of the Ministry of Self-Protection, a file was started. But before the bureaucrats could get their engines up to speed, the industry did a funny thing. Led by Toyota, it decided on its own to make the technology standard on the vehicles they produce for the American market. This technology was intended to keep cars from crashing into one another and into static objects in certain conditions and it has been proven to work in multiple studies of multiple automakers’ vehicles. IIHS now includes testing for forward collision prevention on its evaluation protocols. Only those vehicles with top scores earn the Top Safety Pick ranking.

Pedestrian crash prevention is an evolution of this technology. It is designed to detect an adult or child who is in the path of the vehicle and slow or stop the vehicle before an impact at neighborhood speeds. The systems can also detect a person or child who is moving parallel to the vehicle’s path. In other words, about to step in front of the vehicle. In some cases, the systems can also detect animals or bicyclists in the same fashion. Unlike the vehicle crash prevention systems, automakers have not promised to make this pedestrian-protection technology standard, though many, like Toyota, Subaru, and Nissan are doing so as time goes on. “Pedestrians are the most vulnerable road users, so it’s encouraging that pedestrian crash prevention systems are standard equipment in 12 out of the 16 midsize cars we tested, including five out of six superior-rated systems,” says IIHS President David Harkey.

Which Manufacturers’ Systems Worked Best

The systems that worked best were those from Subaru, Nissan, Volvo, and Audi. Each of these manufacturers socred “Superior” on the models they made that were tested. BMW and Mercedes-Benz had systems that earned a “Superior” rating, but also had lower-performing models that earned “Advanced” and “Basic” ratings. The Ford Fusion, Kia Optima, and Hyundai Sonata were ranked “No Credit” by IIHS since their systems offered no meaningful benefit. “Car makers often roll out these kinds of advanced systems in more expensive luxury lines or as expensive options, so the superior performance of the standard systems on the more mainstream Maxima and Outback is noteworthy,” Harkey says.

What Does This Mean?

Like many safety systems, the proof of the concept is in the testing by third parties. Four years ago, IIHS initiated headlight testing. It revealed that the expensive headlights on fancy cars didn’t work any better than those found on some very affordable models, like the Toyota Prius. There have even been examples where the more expensive optional headlights on the same model vehicle were ranked lower than the base trim’s headlights. Automakers have good intentions. They develop safety technology for profits, but of course, also to help protect lives and property. If this latest round of IIHS testing proves anything it is that rigorous testing, rather than fancy advertisements or a price tag, is the only real way to judge the effectiveness of a safety system.

Read the full IIHS report here.