Pop quiz! What’s the difference between Automatic Emergency Braking, Collision Imminent Braking, Autonomous Emergency Braking, Collision Intervention, Autonomous Braking, and a Dynamic Brake System?
Trick question: nothing. All six of those terms have been used by important auto industry organizations—regulators at the US Department of Transportation, standards developers at SAE International, and influential research organization Thatcham Research—to describe automatic emergency braking systems. If your car comes equipped with Automatic Emergency Braking, it should be able to detect a potential collision in front of the car and automatically apply the brakes to avoid it, or at least to cushion the blow.
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Last week, the Transportation Department said it would join an effort to get everyone in the auto industry, including safety advocates, regulators, manufacturers, suppliers, dealers, and of course drivers themselves, on the same page, language-wise. “We want to make sure that drivers are aware that these systems are designed to ‘assist,’ not replace an engaged driver,” Secretary Elaine Chao told an annual research conference in Washington, DC.
The DOT endorsed a standardized list of advanced driver-assistance terminology, released late last year by the National Safety Council, AAA, Consumer Reports, and JD Power, the automotive marketing research company. The list clarifies, for example, that even when using “Active Driving Assistance” features (like General Motors’ Super Cruise, Audi’s Traffic Jam Assist, or Tesla’s Autopilot), the “driver is responsible for the primary task of driving.” Translation: Keep your eyes on the road! Some sort of advanced driver-assistance feature is available on almost all new cars sold in the US.
If you’re confused by the way your car’s new tech works, you are far from alone. Research suggests that people wildly overestimate the effectiveness of driver-assistance features. Thatcham Research surveyed 1,500 people in seven countries in 2018 and found that 70 percent believed you could buy an autonomous car, and 11 percent would be tempted to nap, watch a movie, or read the paper while using a driver-assistance feature. (Do! Not! Do! That!) Undercover researchers with MIT found in 2017 that not all car dealers accurately describe new features’ abilities or limitations to customers. Studies by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety suggest many drivers don’t understand the range of features like adaptive cruise control, which can adjust vehicle speed when it detects another vehicle ahead. The research also suggests that, without specific instruction, drivers can’t actually tell when a feature like lane-keeping assistance is actually on.
An industry review by AAA found that automakers selling in the US use at least 20 different brand names to market adaptive cruise control; there were 19 names for blind-spot warning systems.
But advanced assistance features also make driving much safer, which is why advocates say it’s important to make sure people understand how they work. Another IIHS study compared police-reported crash data and insurance claims from cars with crash-avoidance tech to those without, and found that cars with forward-collision warning are involved in 27 percent fewer front-to-rear crashes than those without the feature; those with forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking are in 50 percent fewer crashes.
(What’s forward-collision warning? The document endorsed by the DOT defines it as a system that “detects impending collision while traveling forward and alerts [the] driver. Some systems include pedestrian or other object detection.”)
Having DOT on board with the new definitions won’t by itself fix the industry’s vocab issues, or solve its wide-ranging consumer education issues. The most important players, the automakers who devise and market the names, were absent from the DOT announcement. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents the automakers that produce almost 99 percent of light-duty vehicles sold in the US, did not respond to requests for comment.
The Feds are working on performance standards for the tech, and their endorsement suggests their language might be consistent within its regulations. “Hopefully we get some commonality when the automakers start complying with those standards,” says Greg Brannon, the director of automotive engineering and industry relations at AAA. He says his and other groups pushing for more harmonization aren’t trying to get carmakers to nix their unique marketing of these features altogether. But wouldn’t it be nice if, say, Jeep were to clearly label its LaneSense Lane Departure Warning-Plus system a “Lane-Keeping Assistance” feature?
“Unfortunately, there's usually a pretty big gap between the marketing and engineering departments,” Brannon says.