Autocue: Thatcham

Thatcham 12-12 - Mazda CX-5 steering robot 41

Andrew Miller, Research Director at Thatcham, the UK Motor Insurance Repair Research Centre, is a man who knows a great deal about vehicle safety.

So when he says he believes that AEB (autonomous emergency braking) technology – that can take over from the driver and slam on the stoppers in an emergency – is going to overshadow ABS (Anti-lock Braking System), ESC (Electronic Stability Control) and airbags as one of the most significant safety developments seen on our roads, you’d better believe it.

The introduction of AEB is a significant development towards making the dream of accident-free road travel a reality. Volvo introduced it as City Safety back in 2007 on the XC60 and a large majority of Volvo cars now offer it. Other manufacturers are following – Volkswagen has it on the new Golf from SE trim upwards, the new Ford Fiesta is the first supermini to have it as an optional extra, and you can choose it on other Ford models too.

Miller believes that within a decade all new cars sold in Europe will have the technology. He also reckons that from 2014 onwards, it will be all but impossible for a new car to achieve a five-star EuroNCAP safety rating without it, unless it manages to achieve top marks in all of the organisation’s safety categories – a tough call, particularly for pedestrian protection.

With extensive facilities near Reading in Berkshire, Thatcham, a leading member of the Research Council for Automobile Repairs (RCAR) group of international research centres, is heading development work on AEB’s place within EuroNCAP. AEB may involve the use of lasers, radar or camera systems – or a combination of all three – to detect slow moving, rapidly decelerating or stationary vehicles ahead.

Thatcham Director of Research – Andrew Miller
Thatcham Director of Research – Andrew Miller

These can give the driver a “wake-up” call – or, if no human action is taken immediately, AEB goes into action, braking the vehicle to a standstill to avoid a potential crash or at least to mitigate its effects. Pedestrians, including small children, can also be detected. Says Miller: “Data generated by Thatcham Research indicates that when AEB is widely adopted in the UK alone, it has the potential to prevent some 2,700 pedestrian casualties annually.”

This is all very well, but it is proven evidence rather than potential that interests insurance companies. And there are some very significant figures already available. Real world data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in the United States reported a reduction in third party crashes involving the AEB-equipped XC60. Taking this data and combining it with other studies, Thatcham has worked with the Association of British Insurers to implement what it terms a “favourable change” in the insurance group rating for vehicles with AEB fitted as standard.

Thatcham is certainly taking the promise of AEB very seriously and has developed its own test programmes and equipment based on the AEB Group’s work, explained Miller, who added that it looks as if its proposals will form the framework for EuroNCAP’s rating system. AEB will become part of that from next year. Thatcham has created its own physical “target” crash-test cars – inflatable and robust – that can be walloped by a real test car travelling at speed without sustaining damage.

The target has features which include number plates, rear windows and lights. Placed on a framework it can be towed by a vehicle. Both pedestrian and child targets are also being developed by Thatcham and can be propelled across the path of a test vehicle which is travelling at about 30mph. The pedestrian’s approach may be visible to the approaching car’s AEB system or obscured by a parked vehicle. The real cars used by Thatcham are fitted with robotically controlled steering and accelerator systems, with brake operating robots able to react to forward collision warning in the test vehicle. Tests cover city and inter-urban environments.

In the early 1980s, car manufacturers were prophesying the rapid advance of electronic systems in cars. Poor quality, cost cutting and lack of development by some companies caused doubt and concern about their promises and undermined consumer confidence. Now that has all changed: electronics rule – and that’s alright.

Stuart Birch

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