Bloomberg News

Auto Safety Advances Sell at Prices Beyond Reach of Many

January 15, 2013

Customers of Toyota Motor Corp. (7203)’s redesigned Lexus LS460 costing about $70,000 can add a safety feature that emits an infrared beam to provide the driver the equivalent of an extra set of eyes.

The system, part of a $6,500 safety-options package, uses radar and two high-definition cameras to detect when it might hit another car, object or animal. If the system detects an imminent crash, it sends signals to apply some pressure to the brakes and tighten the steering to give the driver a head start on avoidance.

As they did with electronic stability control and air bags, automakers are rolling out what they see as the cutting edge of safety technology years before regulators require it or standards are set. Toyota is among automakers finding that safety sells -- if mostly to consumers willing to pay premiums for their most expensive vehicles.

“We don’t want to be in a place where technology is only for people who can afford it,” U.S. National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said in an interview at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Auto-safety technology has moved beyond surviving crashes to avoiding them, with automakers promoting their so-called active safety systems as parts of higher-level options packages or trim lines.

Driver Attention

The Lexus that offers the pre-collision system also features adaptive cruise control that slows a car when approaching another in front, blind-spot detection including an alert for rear cross traffic, a driver-attention monitor that sounds an alert if it senses a driver isn’t watching the road before a potential collision, and lane-keeping assist that warns if a vehicle is drifting left or right.

“That technology is expensive to develop and produce, so it’s not unusual that the technology gets introduced on a luxury vehicle,” said Robert Carter, Toyota senior vice president of automotive operations at Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. “Anything, over time, the price comes down.”

About a third of fatal crashes and a fifth of crashes causing injury could be prevented or lessened in severity if all passenger vehicles had forward collision warning, lane departure warning, blind spot detection and adaptive headlights, according to an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety analysis of 2004 to 2008 crash data.

Volvo Claims

The systems are working in the real world, too, said Russ Rader, a spokesman for Arlington, Virginia-based group. The affiliated Highway Loss Data Institute found that property damage liability insurance claims for model year 2010 Volvo XC60 SUVs that automatically brake to prevent rear-end crashes were 27 percent lower than those for comparable vehicles.

The NTSB, which can’t make rules on its own, recommended in November that regulators require crash-avoidance systems of some sort and write standards for their performance. U.S. auto-safety regulators are still in the phase of studying their effectiveness, meaning no regulations or performance standards are even in the earliest stages of being written.

Regulators say that, while the technology has great promise for saving lives, they need data from the first systems in use before they could write a rule requiring them.

Blind-spot warning, lane departure warning or both are available on at least one trim line of 41 percent of model-year 2013 vehicles, up from 6.1 percent in 2011, according to data compiled by auto researcher Edmunds.com, based in Santa Monica, California.

Consumers Ahead

“Consumers are a little bit ahead of the government on this, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” Edmunds.com Vice Chairman Jeremy Anwyl said in an interview.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is researching crash-avoidance systems, including working with its German counterpart on evaluating crash-imminent braking. It’s building data to see how effective the systems are, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said in an interview.

“These technologies, while we’ve seen them being introduced to the luxury market for a couple of years now, there’s still very few vehicles out there on the road with them as we are actually trying to get data and use cases on effectiveness,” Strickland said.

Companies including Robert Bosch GmbH, Continental AG (CON) and Delphi Automotive Plc (DLPH:US) make components for crash-avoidance systems. Other systems, such as Subaru’s EyeSight, are developed in-house.

On more moderately priced models, backup cameras are becoming more standard as they can be added with little expense once a car already has an in-vehicle display screen, Toyota’s Carter said.

‘Lane Watch’

Honda in Detroit is displaying a new “lane watch” system in the redesigned 2013 Accord that gives drivers a camera-based view of what’s in the lane in which they want to merge. Honda offers trim lines rather than options packages and expects the technology to be on more than 75 percent of Accords sold, Vicki Poponi, assistant vice president of product planning, said in an interview.

Honda has also standardized backup cameras in its five top- selling vehicles, the Accord, Civic, CR-V, Pilot and Odyssey, she said. More expensive Acuras come with crash-mitigation braking, and adaptive cruise-control is available on higher-end Accords.

“We put our toe in the water to try it out and then we try to migrate it down as soon as possible,” Poponi said.

Center Airbags

General Motors Co. (GM:US), at the show, is promoting the first front-center airbag to protect drivers and front-seat passengers in side-impact or rollover crashes. Developed jointly with supplier Takata Corp. (7312), the bag pops out of the driver’s seat in GM’s crossover sport-utility vehicles.

Electronic stability control was introduced in the late 1990s on luxury vehicles including GM Cadillacs and Daimler-Benz AG Mercedes, said Jake Fisher, director of auto testing at Consumer Reports magazine. It wasn’t until the 2012 model year that U.S. regulators required such systems to be standard on all new vehicles.

Today’s crash-avoidance systems are a long way away from being ready to be mandated in all vehicles, Fisher said in an interview.

“It’s not clear right now how much it’s effective,” he said. “There are a lot of systems right now.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Angela Greiling Keane in Washington at agreilingkea@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net


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