While autonomous vehicles may still be years away from production, one of the key technologies that will allow vehicles to drive on their own already has begun to find their way into today’s production vehicles, helping eight 2014 models earn top ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The group includes seven luxury vehicles and one large mainstream model. Notably, a full half of the vehicles that earned the IIHS Superior rating are built by General Motors, a company that has been struggling to salvage its reputation in the wake of an ignition switch scandal and the recall of nearly 14 million vehicles since January, more than in any single year in its history.
All eight of the top-rated models share at least one critical technology: forward collision warning with auto-braking. That is a step up from earlier models that could detect a potential crash and warn the driver. The newer systems also can apply the brakes if a driver doesn’t respond quickly enough.
“We know that this technology is helping drivers avoid crashes,” said David Zuby, executive vice president and chief research officer of the insurance industry’s automotive research arm. “The advantage of auto-brake is that even in cases where a crash can’t be avoided entirely, the system will reduce speed. Reducing speed reduces the amount of damage that occurs to both the striking and struck cars and reduces injuries to people in those cars.”
General Motors had more vehicles on the IIHS Superior list than any other manufacturer, a total of four, including the Cadillac CTS and XTS models, the Buick Regal and the Chevrolet Impala. The Impala has received a number of kudos since its redesign last year, including being named the best mainstream sedan Consumer Reports magazine has ever tested. While the Buick Regal plays in the near-luxury market, the Impala was the only mainstream model among the eight top safety picks from the IIHS.
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BMW had two of its products recognized, the 5-Series and the X5 Sport Activity Vehicle. The Mercedes-Benz E-Class and the Hyundai Genesis rounded out the list.
The Superior ratings apply to vehicles equipped with forward collision warning with auto-brake systems. The technology is standard on a small but growing number of products, mostly in the luxury class. That includes all Acura, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo models. And it is now available on about 20% of all 2014 vehicles, at least as an option, according to the Highway Loss Data Institute.
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Collision warning systems may use a variety of different methods to track what is happening on the road ahead of a vehicle, including laser and radar sensors. But some systems are opting for vision technologies, such as Subaru’s EyeSight system. And the technologies can serve multiple functions, including Active Cruise Control, where a vehicle is able to maintain its speed in traffic without the driver’s intervention.
But forward collision warning, at its most basic, will issue an alert if there is a risk of a crash, perhaps when the vehicle ahead aggressively brakes. That warning can come in the form of a buzz, bell or flashing lights. The two Cadillac models use a vibrating seat to alert the driver.
More advanced systems not only warn the driver but will, if necessary, automatically apply the brakes in an attempt to prevent the crash, or to at least reduce its severity.
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The models listed by the IIHS as Superior were tested at both 12 and 25 mph, their auto-brake systems capable of reducing the vehicle’s speed to between 2 and 3 mph.
Along with the eight top-rated models, another 13 vehicles received Advanced ratings – which applies to those that didn’t reduce speed quite as much in an emergency. These included the BMW 3 Series, Buick LaCrosse, Lexus IS, Audi A3, Audi A6, BMW 3 Series, Dodge Durango, Lexus GS, Mercedes-Benz CLA, Infiniti QX50 and Infiniti QX70.
The BMW 3-Series without the maker’s City Brake system earned a Basic rating, as did the Infiniti Q70 and Toyota Avalon models.