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Make or brake

Date: 07 April 2016   |   Author: Jack Carfrae

Autonomous emergency braking systems cut accident rates by 38% according to Euro NCAP. Jack Carfrae explores the benefits for fleets

If you've yet to come across autonomous emergency braking (AEB), it's a system that automatically applies a vehicle's brakes if the driver fails to react to an impending front-end collision.

It typically operates at speeds up to around 30mph and uses forward-facing radar or camera technology (or a combination of the two) to identify obstacles such as cars or pedestrians. it also mitigates impacts at higher speeds.

There are a number of systems out there, and according to crash test authority Euro NCAP, they reduce accident rates by an average of 38%. The types of incidents they prevent are often common and expensive, too.

"A lot of the accidents we see are drivers running into the car in front, which are relatively minor but actually quite costly to a business," says Selwyn Cooper, Volvo's head of business sales. "There comes a point where the car has to do its part as well as the driver and when you've got an [AEB] system, it simply reduces low-speed shunts."

New figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders and Jato Dynamics recently found that more than half of new cars registered in 2015 were fitted with collision warning systems, while autonomous braking featured on 39% of new cars, 18% of which was standard fit.

Blind spot monitoring was fitted to 35.8% of new cars last year, while the figure was 31.7% for adaptive cruise control systems.

"Fully driverless cars are still a long way off from everyday use, but this data shows advanced autonomous technology is already making its way into the majority of new cars," said SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes. "Connected and autonomous cars will transform our society - vastly improving safety and reducing congestion and emissions."

AEB isn't merely an exercise in accident reduction, though. Vehicles fitted with it as standard (not those where it's specified as an option) fall into lower insurance groups and receive a "generic 10% discount" over equivalent vehicles without it, according to Matthew Avery, director of research at UK safety body Thatcham.

Avery says there have been examples of fleet operators switching orders to vehicles with AEB because of the available discounts. "We work with a couple of insurers that [specialise in] fleets. One was talking to a big fleet customer buying vans and they'd specified something like a Citroen Berlingo.

The insurer actually went back to them and said 'it would be cheaper if you bought the Ford Transit Connect because that has AEB'. The fleet changed the order over to Ford, so that's one of the first tangible times when this has had a real influence."

According to Thatcham, AEB is available with close to 40% of cars on sale today and is standard on a little less than 20%. That's set to increase with all-new cars (ie new models that undergo the test rather than facelifts or mid-life revisions of outgoing cars), as it becomes a near requirement for a five-star Euro NCAP crash test rating. The systems are scarcer on LCVs, although the test is different.

The implementation of the technology has been likened to now-standard features such as ABS and ESP. "It's not that futuristic or scary - it's the next logical step," says Geoffrey Bray, chairman of the Fleet Industry Advisory Group. "It's all about [production] volume, so the more you get the cheaper it becomes."
Bray claims the technology isn't likely to face a backlash from drivers: "I really can't see there being too much driver resistance [to AEB].

Unfortunately, people can still use phones hands free in cars and you can be on a motorway having a long conversation, you get distracted and before you know it you've hit the car in front. This is a fairly simple example of where [the technology] can help to compensate for a lack of attention."

"If it were me, I would replace my fleet with AEB cars but not in one go - just as they come up for renewal," adds Nigel Grainger, managing director of Fleet Risk Consultants.

"Any fleet manager that avoids AEB is potentially leaving themselves open to corporate manslaughter for gross misconduct. There's a piece of technology that minimises risk - if you actively choose not to have it, you're not taking the steps necessary under health and safety law to minimise the risk to your employee.   

"It's a bit like working up a ladder. If AEB's your scaffolding rather than your ladder and you actively choose not to fit it or not to have AEB-equipped vehicles then one of your drivers hits something up the back end and dies, you are leaving yourself open to corporate manslaughter charges. You've got to prove you are innocent, and I would struggle to defend that.

Auto-brake: a standard issue?

Despite the proven benefits of AEB, and the universal thumbs-up from safety authorities, there are no current plans to make it mandatory as is the case with the likes of ABS, though a top Euro NCAP crash test score is tricky without it.  

"It's not law and there are no direct proposals or regulations to make AEB standard," says Thatcham's director of research, Matthew Avery. "There are ways and means around it but fundamentally, if you want five stars you've [now] got to have an AEB system. Without it, you'd have to ace [the test] in some of the other areas and it's probably not economically viable to do that, so most manufacturers are just going for the AEB solution."

Avery claims the fact that most new cars have the systems as standard has so far counted against them becoming a legislated requirement - something the BVRLA recently called for - but they probably will be in time.

"Euro NCAP is having such a big effect that it's actually having much more impact than regulation, so while Brussels and UK plc are saying that we could work on trying to make AEB mandatory, most of the work is done, so we're better off to focus on more valuable areas."

"I think that when, not if, we get regulation, it will be a question of what that is. Such new rules will probably have a greater effect on the likes of [budget brand] Dacia and those selling a more niche product that doesn't see the need to have AEB."