Safety concerns grow over cars’ high-tech braking and summoning features

carteslasummon-300x225Technology advocates may be ignoring due cautions as they put software ahead of safety in the push to make the vehicles of today and tomorrow more self-driving (aka autonomous).

Car and truck owners, safety advocates warn, should proceed with care before relying on automatic emergency braking systems, especially as they purport to safeguard pedestrians. Restraint also may be the watchword for a new feature that allows a luxe electric car to be “summoned” to its driver, shifting out of a parked position and navigating short distances on its own.

The American Automobile Association reported that it sought to get ahead of the curve by subjecting the new automatic emergency braking systems to track tests in mid-sized sedans of their safety applications under “real world” conditions. The outcomes were worrisome, AAA found:

“[A]utomatic emergency braking systems with pedestrian detection perform inconsistently and proved to be completely ineffective at night. An alarming result, considering 75% of pedestrian fatalities occur after dark. The systems were also challenged by real-world situations, like a vehicle turning right into the path of an adult. AAA’s testing found that in this simulated scenario, the systems did not react at all, colliding with the adult pedestrian target every time.”

The auto club said its testing underscored the effects of the time of day, location, and vehicle speed on the effectiveness of pedestrian detection and braking systems:

“[P]edestrians are at greater risk for severe injury or death the faster a car is traveling at the time of impact. For example, a pedestrian hit by a vehicle traveling at 20 mph has an 18% risk of severe injury or death. Increase that by just 10 mph to 30 mph and the risk more than doubles to 47%. AAA’s latest study found that speed impacted [braking] system performance as well, with results varying between testing performed at 20 mph and 30 mph … Overall, the systems performed best in the instance of the adult crossing in front of a vehicle traveling at 20 mph during the day. In this case, the systems avoided a collision 40% of the time. But, at the higher speed of 30 mph, most systems failed to avoid a collision with the simulated pedestrian target.”

AAA said the systems mostly failed when they were supposed to brake and protect, say, a child darting into the street from between two parked cars, or if a vehicle was making a right-hand turn and a pedestrian stepped in the way, or if the test situations occurred in simulated night situations.

Greg Brannon, AAA’s director of Automotive Engineering and Industry Relations, said the auto club supports the advancement of safety systems, explaining, “Pedestrian fatalities are on the rise, proving how important the safety impact of these systems could be when further developed. But our research found that current systems are far from perfect and still require an engaged driver behind the wheel.”

The auto club noted that, “on average, nearly 6,000 pedestrians lose their lives each year, accounting for 16% of all traffic deaths, a percentage that has steadily grown since 2010.”

Here, Tesla, come here ….

The Los Angeles Times — which splashed a story on its Sunday front-page recently about growing concerns about rising pedestrian deaths, particularly in poorer and mostly minority communities across the country — also has raised concerns about a new feature made available on tony electric cars made by the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company Tesla. The newspaper reported:

“[O]o Sept. 26, [Tesla] beamed a software feature called Smart Summon to [its] owners who prepaid for it. Using a smartphone, a person can now command a Tesla to turn itself on, back out of its parking space and drive to the smartphone holder’s location — say, at the curb in front of a Costco store. The car relies on on-board sensors and computers to help it move forward, back up, steer, accelerate and decelerate on its own, braking if it detects people, other vehicles or stationary objects in its path. The ‘driver’ must keep a finger or thumb on the smart phone screen, or the car will stop. Tesla recommends the feature for parking lots, and the technology’s range — 200 feet — limits its applications. But in theory, a car can be summoned anywhere — to drive down a public street, for instance.”

Owners already have posted videos of themselves doing just that, not only cruising on city streets but even puttering after them as they keep moving to force their Teslas to trail after like eager pets. Further, in displays on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, the newspaper reported:

“Many [owners] focus on the wow factor, showing dogs, kids and even a Halloween skeleton behind the wheel of the moving car. Some demonstrate the technology’s limitations or near collisions, others show users blatantly ignoring Tesla’s warnings. Several videos show Smart Summon driving cars on public roads. Users are supposed to have the vehicle always within view, but at least in some cases, the feature appears to work whether they can see the car or not.”

In car-crazy California, the summoning tech may be legal. Its status is less clear in other states, and insurers declined to comment to the Los Angeles Times about coverage for collisions or mishaps attributable to the feature. The National Highway Traffic Safety Agency told the newspaper that it knows about Tesla’s new feature, is monitoring its use, and will not hesitate to act if problems occur. They have not — so far.

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the havoc that can be wreaked on them and their loved ones by car, truck, and motorcycle wrecks, notably those that may be traced to defective and dangerous products that are part of vehicles and on which they rely. Technologies, of course, typically can be neutral — their benefits and harms determined by people, especially vehicle makers and motorists.

The nation, until recently, had made big strides in road safety that, alas, seem to be rolling backwards now. The progress occurred, in part, due to the dogged work of safety advocates like Ralph Nader. He and others crusaded to get makers to develop and install new kinds of windshield glass that broke into pebble-like pieces, rather than turning into lethal shards. Detroit strengthened vehicle cabs, so they didn’t crush so easily in front- and side-impact. Seat belts and shoulder harnesses were made more comfortable and secure, as new kinds of lightweight but protective padding got installed in vehicle dashes and elsewhere in the cabin. Makers also figured how to ensure that steering columns could be redesigned, so they no longer acted like deadly bayonets.

Though proponents have talked up contemporary technologies, especially autonomous vehicles, as prospective ways to step up road efficiency and safety yet more, it is becoming clear that some of the rosy optimism may have been misplaced. It may take longer for autonomous vehicles to fulfill their promise, and even components of a self-driving era — like automatic, emergency braking or vehicle summoning — may need more refinement, testing, and oversight before they see their safe and optimal application. Trade-offs and compromises may need to be made.

Indeed, though it may take a too-harsh view of vehicles, a New York Times Op-Ed on cars as “death machines” and how “self-driving tech” won’t fix that harm is striking for its own use of technology. The piece’s author, Allison Arieff, appealed to the public via social media to tell briefly their own stories of how vehicles caused death or injury. The newspaper has posted her Op-Ed with an interactivity, so photos of responses include snippets of tragedies that have befallen so many.

They serve as a poignant reminder: We have much work to do to make our roads safer and less deadly. We all need to try harder so we’re not problems when we get behind the wheel — so we’re not drunk, drugged, sleepy, and distracted, especially by texting, raucous music, or over exuberant conversation. Lives are at stake, our own and those of people we love. When hurtling down the road, in command of thousands of pounds of glass and steel, please give your driving your full, undivided, and best capacities.

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