Last week at the MIT MediaLab, the New England Motor Press Association (NEMPA) held its annual conference on advanced vehicle technology. The panel included executives involved in incorporating autonomous, semi-autonomous and infotainment technologies in our cars. The panelists came from auto manufacturers (Toyota and Hyundai), professional associations (SAE), suppliers (Qualcomm), academia (MIT) and consumer advocacy organizations (Consumer Reports).
What has become evident over the last seven of these conferences is that we’re on an endless march toward at least some level of autonomy, but the point at which we’ll be reading newspapers behind the steering wheel is a long, long way off.
The level of autonomy we have today, though, is helping in a lot of ways. It’s what the SAE describes in its J3016 standard as “Level 2.”
Level 2 automation still requires that a human be in primary control of the automobile, but in some situations, the technology can provide steering, braking or acceleration support, will center the vehicle in the lane, and provides adaptive cruise control functionality that works with the lane centering function.
That technology is present — at least at the optional level — on the average vehicle for sale here in the United States today, and if you trust the agencies that are providing analysis, at least some of that technology is helping Americans to avoid crashes.
The best available example of that at work is Automatic Emergency Braking. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the technology may be helping to save lives because it’s helping drivers avoid crashes before they ever happen. The study announced in November of 2018 showed that GM vehicles that were equipped with the technology had “43 percent fewer police-reported front-to-rear crashes of all severities and 64 percent fewer front-to-rear crashes with injuries” than the same cars that didn’t have the technology.
Which led to a bit of a kerfuffle on the panel that involved Kelly Funkhouser, Consumer Reports’ Head of Connected and Automated Vehicles. If a technology like this would add a couple hundred dollars to the cost of every vehicle, why on earth wouldn’t it just be made standard across the board?
Funkhouser’s specific argument was around DSRC, or Dedicated Short Range Communications.
DSRC is an open-source protocol for wireless communication, sort of similar to WiFi, but providing a highly secure, high-speed wireless communication between vehicles and the infrastructure.
DSRC offers some limited, yet not unimportant benefits to drivers. Say you’re coming up to an off-ramp that has a significant decreasing radius at the end. DSRC can alert you that you’re approaching the curve too quickly, giving you time to slow down and negotiate the curve safely. It’s also been shown effective in alerting drivers to construction zones, and providing emergency vehicles priority at traffic lights.
DSRC is relatively cheap, yet it’s not in every car. Funkhouser asked why when she was on the panel. “DSRC has a very minimal dollar amount to put into cars but has a high benefit to consumers,” she said.
The automotive industry is committed to occupant safety today for one reason: It sells cars. With relatively few exceptions, a lousy IIHS or NHTSA crash test rating is going to have a significantly negative impact on how that car sells. The Jeep Wrangler is the one vehicle that can get away with sub-5 star crash ratings. Every other sedan and crossover SUV — the bulk of vehicles sold in the US outside of pickup trucks — uses its IIHS and NHTSA crash test ratings as a key part of its marketing.
But we still haven’t learned the lessons we learned in the 1980s and early 1990s. Back in those days, antilock brakes were optional, and they weren’t cheap. Take a look at the features list on a popular car like the Ford Thunderbird in 1992 and anti-lock brakes weren’t even available unless you stepped up to the Super Coupe trim, which started well over $22,000 in Bush 41-era dollars. Lesser trims didn’t even offer the technology.
Contrary to popular opinion, NHTSA never mandated antilock brakes its Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) the way it did seatbelts or airbags. Nevertheless, by the mid-2000s, antilock brakes were nearly ubiquitous in every single car, truck, van and SUV sold within our borders.
Seems like it was a magnanimous gesture that the industry just started building every vehicle with ABS. Capitalism FTW! Not quite. In March of 2007, NHTSA introduced FMVSS No. 127, mandating that every vehicle with a gross vehicle weight under 10,000 pounds be equipped with Electronic Stability Control (ESC).
ESC works to eliminate both oversteer and understeer, and helps a lot of drivers avoid crashes. Rather than allowing the vehicle to push to the outside of a corner if the driver enters too fast, the system brakes the wheels on the inside of the corner to help turn the vehicle. If the back end swings out (oversteer), the system brakes individual wheels to keep the car in line.
Because the system uses the very same wheel speed sensors and vehicle speed sensors as the ABS system, ESC basically can’t exist without ABS. In NHTSA’s final ruling, it spells it out: “We assume that an ESC system combines two basic technologies: Anti-lock brakes (ABS) and electronic stability control (ESC).” So even if ABS wasn’t mandated by NHTSA on its own, it snuck it in under the aegis of ESC.
The costs for making ESC and ABS standard weren’t cheap, in an industry that attempts to drive every supplier to the brink of insolvency by shaving 0.0003 cents off the cost of every fastener it buys. According to NHTSA, “Vehicle costs are estimated to be $368 (in 2005 dollars) for antilock brakes and an additional $111 for electronic stability control for a total system cost of $479 per vehicle.”
Now, in 2019, manufacturers are slowly moving toward the same conclusion with technologies like Automatic Emergency Braking. The federal government — which is currently administered by leaders who are less inclined to mandate that safety or fuel saving technologies be included on every car — is letting the industry take the lead. Twenty manufacturers — which amount to about 99 percent of all cars and trucks sold in the US — have committed to make Automatic Emergency Braking standard in all cars by 2022.
Which is fantastic, but what about all the other Level 2 technologies like advanced cruise control and lane keeping assist? If those technologies are as potentially life-saving as they’re touted to be, why should someone who can only afford a base-level car be less safe behind the wheel?
“At CR we call for proven safety equipment to be standard on all cars. Adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assist don’t have the data to show there is any benefit, yet,” she told us after the conference. “We hope they will, but until then it’s not fair or justified for us to ask for them to be standard features. When we make the formal call for a feature to be standard, we consider the cost to manufacturers, benefits to consumers, and look at the hard data.”