Vehicle safety systems are experiencing a period of development unlike any in the history of the industry. While the 20th century focused on passive safety systems, such as crumple zones, seat belts, and airbags, these measures focused on mitigating the danger to occupants once an accident had happened. The 21st century, on the other hand, has emphasized active safety: keeping occupants safe by making sure the accident never happens.

Concerns About the Pace of Adopting Active Safety Systems

While new technologies are becoming available at seemingly a rapid-fire pace, some industry figures are concerned about the rate that active safety systems are being adopted in the industry. A Boston Consulting Group study commissioned by The Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association recently found that so-called advanced driver assistance systems that are currently available could save up to 9,900 lives a year if they were fully adopted in the United States. These systems focus on three ways of helping avoid collisions:

  1. aiding the driver in detecting hazards (night vision systems, backup cameras, etc.),
  2. warning the driver of hazards that he or she may not detect (blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, driver drowsiness detection, etc.), and
  3. assisting the driver in avoiding collisions (automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping mechanisms, etc.).

Of course, the major limiting factor in getting more widespread adoption of these technologies is cost. Boston Consulting’s study reports that adding all of the advanced driver assistance systems to a car without them would cost the driver over $8,000. When the average transaction price for a new car is about $33,500, such an increase in cost can be tough for consumers to swallow, especially if the benefits—which the study estimates can be over $16,000 for the owner and for society generally over the 20-year life of a car—do not seem clear.

The study suggests a few steps that could be taken to increase adoption of safety technologies. The study points out that in Europe, for a manufacturer to seek a five-star safety rating from Euro NCAP (a non-profit organization supported by seven European governments, but whose testing is not mandated for new vehicles), the tested model must have automatic emergency braking and lane-departure systems; no such requirement exists for U.S. or Japanese safety ratings. The study also notes that there are state-specific insurance laws that require empirical evidence of safety benefits before insurers can offer discounts for cars with certain safety systems; for newer technologies, these laws can make it more difficult for insurers to offer incentives to purchase cars with state-of-the-art safety systems. The authors also suggest a role for legislators and regulators, if not by outright mandating adoption of certain systems, then by setting incentives for manufacturers to adopt lifesaving technologies for their models.

Voluntary Steps to Make Cars Safer

While progress may not be as rapid as some hope, steps are clearly being made as businesses determine that individual systems should be adopted in their cars. Audi, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Mazda, Mercedes Benz, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo have recently announced that they will incorporate automatic emergency braking as a standard feature on all new cars they manufacture. These systems use detection systems to determine when the vehicle is approaching an obstacle too rapidly, and if the driver does not brake (or does not brake sharply enough), can engage the brakes to avoid or mitigate the collision. While timing has not been finalized, these manufacturers will be working with IIHS and NHTSA in the coming months on implementation of this plan. According to IIHS research, adoption of this technology alone could cut down on injury claims from accidents by up to 35%. The steps to be taken on the other technologies identified by the Boston Consulting study remain to be seen.