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AUTONOMOUS BRAKING: Putting the brakes on insurance

Date: 17 June 2011

Growing use of auto-braking systems could impact the insurance world, reports Rachel Burgess

Vehicle insurance costs could come down as a result of the increasing use of autonomous emergency braking systems on cars.

That was the message from Peter Shaw, chief executive of motor insurance repair research centre Thatcham, speaking at an event on AEB systems arranged by the organisation. Shaw said the application of autonomous emergency braking on cars "will reduce severity of damage to a vehicle. This technology over time should bring down claim costs."

Also talking at the event, Thatcham crash repair manager Matthew Avery added that insurers will start to pay attention when there is solid data, "hopefully be in next 12 months".

He said: "Insurers won't need to be told to reduce premiums; they will because crashes will reduce by 10% or 20%." There are currently 450,000 whiplash injuries a year in the UK, and with the rise in AEB systems this could be reduced by 160,000, according to Thatcham. City Safety, Volvo's AEB system, and those like it that work at low speeds are likely to be most relevant, with 80% of crashes occurring under 30mph, said Avery.

Volvo, which leads the way with safety systems, now has the pioneering City Safety as standard on some of its models including the S60, V60 and XC60. A more advanced pedestrian-detection system is a £1380 option. Other manufacturers that have AEB systems include Audi, BMW, Honda, Lexus, Subaru, Toyota and Mercedes.

But it's Ford's introduction of City Safety to its high-volume Focus has meant the carmaker has "democratised" the technology, said Avery: "Ford is bringing collision avoidance to the masses. We want to see [systems like] City Safety fitted to every vehicle." City Safety on the Ford Focus comes as part of a £750 safety package that also includes several other systems including lane departure and blind spot warning.

Pete Thomas, professor of road and vehicle safety at Loughborough University, echoed Avery's sentiment: "AEB really does have the potential to prevent a lot of collisions and reduce the severity. We want to see it fitted as standard to all models of cars and that's when we'll see the real casualty savings."

The next step for Thatcham is for AEB system testing to become part of Euro NCAP ratings for vehicles. Avery said: "The big change will be when we get this to Euro NCAP. Once it becomes part of the ratings, then manufacturers will start to fit AEB as standard as Euro NCAP does not consider options in its ratings." He added that Thatcham wants it in Euro NCAP by 2013.

Research carried out at Thatcham and Loughborough University, identified the most common crash situations, which have been used to define test procedures that will allow the new systems to be rated.

A spokesman from the Association of British Insurers said: "Insurers recognise that cars are forever changing and improving and anything that makes cars safer is a good thing. But when you get new systems you have to look at cost implications - for example, will a car with AEB cost more to repair than one without? And the main rating factor for insurers is the person behind the wheel."

He continued: "In the immediate instance it won't bring down premiums but it may over time. If it reduces whiplash claims, that's got to be a good thing. Around 20% of the average premium goes to whiplash claims."

Future safety technology will look at head-on situations, according Avery. "There is no technology for head-on at the moment. Car-to-car is simple, and car-to-pedestrian is more difficult. The right system would react to cars coming towards you but it would have to be very, very sensitive. I expect it to be here in the next four to five years."

Car-to-car telemetry is also on the agenda before 2020, where two cars on the road will be able to communicate with each other through telematics.