Will “Crash-Proof” Cars Make Drivers More Dangerous?

Via TreeHugger, Copenhagenize reports that Volvo is in the final stages of testing technology to improve safety for people outside its products — a "pedestrian detection" system available in S60 models next year:

It is meant to spot all pedestrians in front of the car as well as off
to the sides in a 60 degree angle. It will warn the driver with a red
flashing light on the windshield if the car is on a collision course
with a pedestrian.

If the driver doesn’t react quick enough it
will brake automatically up to 25 km/h and stop by itself if the car is
traveling under 25 km/h.

The system cannot recognize bicyclists yet, but engineers are working on it.

At first blush, a car on the lookout for pedestrians seems like a can’t-lose safety measure. But a lot depends on how drivers compensate, knowing that their vehicles can mitigate their own lapses in judgment and attention. Might a safer, smarter car lead people to take more risks and exercise less care behind the wheel?

Since this is exactly the sort of question that comes up again and again in Traffic (recipient of the 2008 Streetsie for best book), I emailed author Tom Vanderbilt to get his take on the merits and drawbacks of Volvo’s new tech. Here’s what he wrote back:

It’s hard not to be of two minds about this. On the one hand, I’m all for
personal responsibility and putting the driver in charge. On the other
hand, there are certain times when even the most cautious driver might be
plagued by some shortcoming in perception or attention — e.g., a few months
ago I almost hit a cyclist because I did not see them in my right-rear blind
spot, and I wasn’t expecting a cyclist to be there. It’s unfortunate that
it doesn’t work at night, given the overrepresentation of pedestrian
fatalities at that time, partially having to do with visibility. But in any
case the real question is whether even with negative behavioral adaptation
there’s still a net safety gain. And the other bright spot is at least
someone besides Honda is actually thinking about pedestrians from the car’s
point of view.

Interestingly, I’ve heard that some of the settings at which auto engineers
place these systems for activation are much more stringent than what drivers
themselves seem to desire — so maybe the car really would know best in this
situation.

And of course there’s other things we could do, vis a vis technology, to
improve urban traffic safety, "Intelligent Speed Adaptation" being top of
the agenda here. This too is a form of "collision avoidance," as obviously
the slower you’re going, the more time to avoid a crash.

I should note that the pedestrian detection system will be optional on those new Volvos, part of a $3,500 premium package. So for now, this potentially life-saving tech remains a luxury item.

  • Ian Turner

    The pedestrian detection system may be priced as a luxury item, but if it’s actually effective at reducing crashes, you would expect insurers to pick it up immediately as a source of discounts. It’s not hard to imagine insurance premiums dropping $700 per year, especially among certain demographics, meaning that the $3,500 sticker price could be recouped 5 years of the initial purchase.

    From an actuarial perspective (as opposed to a marketing one), I imagine the drivers most likely to benefit from this technology are inexperienced younger drivers operating in dense urban environments. This is a demographic that neatly overlaps with those paying the highest insurance premiums today.

  • I suppose that insurance companies will offer a rebate for thusly equipped cars, as they do with antilock brakes.

  • $700 a year reduction? I pay less than $500 a year total for car insurance.

  • This could lead to hilarious results in a shared street….or during a parade.

  • Shemp

    You could also sentence convicted reckless drivers to install an after-market version of these things in their cars in the future, if we ever convicted anyone of reckless driving or similar.

  • poncho

    but i guarantee you the typical response will be… why should i pay extra to protect a careless pedestrian? they should be a responsible citizen and get a damn car!!! at least thats my thoughts after reading this…
    Only in Portland: Protests of ‘motorist discrimination’

  • I got a chuckle out of the idea that the new system will prevent unnecessary accidents with pedestrians (around 1:26). It’s good to know that Volvo wants to limit itself to necessary accidents with pedestrians.

    Also, the new technology doesn’t seem to do anything about rudeness; note how they cut off a group of pedestrians around 1:49.

  • Ben

    A system I so want installed before 2012 is EDR Electronic Data Recorders. It is amazing we have very little crash data simply becuase we don’t install this device.
    Imagine if drivers knew they were bieng recorded right before the crash?

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Ben, I applaud your intention but there is already plenty of data in almost all vehicles, extracting it legally that is the issue. Dozens of states, under pressure from AAA and the “civil libertarians” have already passed legislation prohibit the cops from down-loading the data that is already there. New York is not one of them, yet. Since it would tend to bring insurance rates down one would think this fell into the doomed category of “no brainer” for the NY State Legislature to get cracking on. Not.

  • Giffe

    Hahahaha! I love how it didn’t stop the driver from cutting off a bunch of pedestrians at the crosswalk.

  • Giffe, I noticed the same clip! If those pedestrians had not noticed the car and kept walking it looks like they may have been hit. Not much explanation for that one.

  • Streetsman

    There should be some way soon to use computers to limit the speed of a car to the speed limit of the public road it is on, using GPS or something. The device that limits the cars speed would then be required for all vehicles at inspection. It could have an emergency override that notifies local PD and your insurer that the override has been activated. That by itself would do miracles for pedestrian safety

  • J. Mork

    How about a system that stops a car for 5 minutes if a pedestrian puts their palm on the body? That should keep the cars away from peds in the crosswalk.

  • I am just wondering, why the Swedish car company decides to go to Copenhagen, Denmark to test this new pedestrian detection device???? Not enough people in the streets in Swedish cities? Or better hit a Dane (than a Swede) while testing it??

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