“Faster, faster!” yelled my backseat, male, teenage companion. It was a somewhat cold and rainy day as my sixteen-year-old self and two friends drove through my high school’s campus but my eagerness to impress my friends did not combine well with the slick, windy road. The car’s stability control wasn’t able to overcome physics, and off into the grass we went. Fortunately for my companions, including the the vocal son of the Dean, and myself the grass was wide and forgiving and neither property nor bodies were injured.
More than a decade later, it’s easy for me to look back on the foolishness of my teenage driving years and wonder how I survived the statistics. According to the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), teenage drivers between the ages of 16 and 19 are more than three times likely than drivers over age 20 to be involved in a fatal crash. Young people aged 15 to 24 represent just 14% of the population but account for 30% of the total cost of motor vehicle injuries in the US. The problem isn’t limited to poorly educated or low-aspiring teens either—all three occupants in my car were National Merit Finalists.
Simply put, teenagers are terrible at driving, and parents must equip them with all available tools to save them from themselves, and protect their wallets and the public at large. Fortunately, automotive technology has progressed to the point where it can almost save teenagers, and everyone, from killing themselves and others. Volvo introduced autonomous braking technology as standard equipment in 2008 on its XC60 SUV. Nearly five years later, the technology has proven its worth and is being made required equipment on all European vehicles in 2014. The US government is considering similar requirements.
The technology is simple; manufactures mount cameras, radars, or lasers onto the front of cars that can act as a second pair of eyes. If the equipment detects that the driver is about to be involved in a collision and isn’t reacting, the car automatically applies the brakes. In most cases, the systems can completely prevent a collision below 20 miles per hour. At higher speeds, the autonomous braking system significantly reduces the severity of impact. Five years after Volvo debuted the technology on a luxury SUV, autonomous braking can now be equipped on about 20% of cars available for sale in the US, including the brand new Mazda3 for about $25,000.
Mazda’s Smart City Brake Support technology can bring the car to a complete stop without driver interaction at speeds under 19mph. The optional safety technology utilizes a forward looking laser mounted behind the rearview mirror to monitor traffic and enable the car to automatically react to traffic conditions. Unlike Subaru and Volvo’s systems, Mazda’s implementation is designed to be as least intrusive as possible, providing no warnings if it detects an impending collision. Instead, the system waits to the last possible nanosecond before applying the brakes at full force to completely avoid a collision even without driver interaction.
Available on select 2014 CX-5 and Mazda6 models with upcoming availability on the brand new Mazda 3. Currently, the most affordably equipped vehicle with this package is the 2014 CX-5 Touring at $28,025 with destination or the 2014 Mazda3 s Grand Touring with the GT Technology Package for $28,390.
Subaru’s EyeSight technology can bring the car to a complete stop without driver interaction at speeds under 19mph. The optional safety technology utilizes two forward looking cameras mounted behind the rearview mirror to monitor traffic and enable the car to automatically react to traffic conditions. If the cameras detect an impending collision, the car will first sound an alarm; however, it will apply the car’s brakes if the driver doesn’t act in time. The technology can also warn drivers if they sway out of their lane. This camera-based system is significantly more affordable than radar or laser based systems, but it is prone to more deficiencies. For example, the cameras work just like the human eye; therefore, there’s a good chance that if the driver’s vision is obscured (i.e. darkness, rain, fog, glare) that EyeSight will turn itself off due to poor visibility.
Available on select 2014 Forester ($21,995), Legacy ($20,295), and Outback ($23,495) models. The most affordable vehicle with this package is the $26,830 Legacy 2.5i Premium.
Volvo’s City Safety technology can bring the car to a complete stop without driver interaction at speeds up to 30mph. Standard on the company’s S60, S80, and XC60 vehicles, the technology utilizes a laser mounted behind the rearview mirror to monitor traffic and enable the car to automatically react to traffic conditions. Similar to Mazda’s implementation, the Volvo system is designed to react at the last possible nano-second, providing no warnings if it detects an impending collision. Instead, the system waits to the last possible nanosecond before applying the brakes at full force to completely avoid a collision. It’s worth noting that unlike dealers for other manufacturers discussed here, Volvo’s dealers are eager to demonstrate the effectiveness of their technology to would be buyers. Sales people insist that test drivers steer the car at barriers set up in the store’s parking lot to experience the technology first hand.
The most affordably priced Volvo with this technology is the 2013 S60 at $31,900. Edmunds appraises a pre-owned 2010 XC60 at about $22,000.
Insurance Rates and Effectiveness
As the company that originally pioneered auto-stopping technology, Volvo has led the effort to convince insurance companies that its safer cars deserve lower rates. Their argument is well founded; the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that drivers of City Safety equipped S60s made 16% fewer claims overall and 30% fewer at-fault claims than competing midsize luxury sedans.
The US Government seems to agree that these systems work. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) is currently studying whether to mandate that the technology be made standard across all cars sold in the US. The European Commission is already sold on the idea; it is requiring that all commercial vehicles have auto-braking technology by the end of 2013 and passenger vehicles beginning in 2014.