Matthew Avery

Matthew Avery

Although your car may be equipped with the latest advanced driver assistance systems thereby reducing the chances of an impact, this technology can increase costs of repair if something goes wrong. Conversely such technology can also reduce your insurance costs. UK-based Motor Insurance Repair Research Centre (Thatcham) have explored this topic and demonstrate how good design and inclusion of the right technologies can make a car more appealing to the consumer looking for good value in the long term. To find out more, Matthew Beecham talked with Matthew Avery, Thatcham's head of research.

How do you define Advanced Driver Assist Systems?

In broad terms there are two types of vehicle safety technology. "Secondary safety" concerns the protection of occupants in the event of a crash and includes airbags, seat belt pre-tensioners and stronger occupant compartments. The main focus today however is on "primary safety", crash prevention, and this is where we find Advanced Driver Assist Systems or ADAS.

It incorporates technologies such as Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB), stability control, blind spot warnings and systems that notify the driver of lane departure and even physically steer the car to correct this. In each case the aim is to prevent accidents in the first place.

Of these, AEB is the most important today with Euro-NCAP due to launch the test procedure that Thatcham helped develop, into its rating system in January 2014. Lane Departure Warning (LDW) and Lane Keep Assist system tests are also maturing quickly.

What is the key component of a modern ADAS?

Manufacturers are moving towards the sharing of ADAS components to help improve cost, functionality and increase development speed. AEB systems have traditionally used radar as the primary sensor system but as situations and testing requirements become more complex the need for sensor fusion - adding sensors together for improved functionality - is increasingly important.

The most important component in this regard is an optical camera device to essentially read the road ahead. It enables a great deal of functionality such as lane departure detection and road sign recognition to give speed and warning alerts in addition to its function to identify potential collision threats. It can even modify active suspension settings to give the optimum performance to negotiate hazards ahead like Mercedes latest S-Class.

Importantly, its addition also dramatically improves the performance of AEB systems to give pedestrian detection; something that will enter safety ratings in 2016.

Which systems are having the most significant impact?

AEB is the technology making the largest contribution today and thanks to the inclusion of a camera, its potential is growing. RADAR is excellent at distance detection but without the additional information provided by an optical system, cannot accurately classify objects. For example, the RADAR tells us that an object is ahead, but the camera can tell us what it is - hence algorithms can more accurately compute potential collision threats and non-threats.

Cameras working alone have limitations as, at around 25 frames per second (25 Hz), their refresh rate is relatively slow. RADAR works massively faster at around 77 GHz and the sooner you recognise a hazard, the more time you have to process it. Hence pairing these technologies makes great sense, especially for pedestrian detection.

One exception to this is the stereo camera setup which gives depth perception and, by running out of phase, effectively doubles the frame rate to 50 frames per second.

What reduction in crash rates can we forecast with these systems?

In the UK today we are seeing a reduction in whiplash injury in AEB equipped vehicles of around 18%. This is measured data. The technology is maturing and we expect this to reach the 25% level seen in some other tests around the world. Early data on lateral guidance systems such as lane departure and blind spot warnings are not showing a significant contribution but the more advanced Lane Keep Assist (LKA) system, where the vehicle will actually correct the steering, is showing more potential.

An interesting comparison is with Electronic Stability Control which is now mandatory in all new cars. Here real data has again shown a 25% reduction in the numbers of killed or seriously injured in single vehicle crashes and an overall reduction in insurance costs of around 15%. An enormous benefit.

How does the cost of repair go up with ADAS inclusion?

The great thing about cameras is that they are relatively cheap, robust, generally sit protected behind the windscreen and are easy to clip on or off. Today's radar systems by comparison are extremely expensive and need to be placed ahead of the metallic structure of the vehicle. This makes them susceptible to damage in even quite low speed collision - a typical radar can cost up to US$2000.

Another challenge is that it is not always easy to tell whether the RADAR is working perfectly after a minor parking crash. In crude terms, if it is physically broken the car will give a clear fault code. But if it is just slightly misaligned there can be an effect on performance that is not detected by the vehicle but the performance may be significantly degraded. One solution is recalibrating the RADAR after every incident but this can be complex and can drive up repair costs even further.

Many Blind Spot monitoring systems use radar in the rear quarters, mounted behind the bumper cover. After a minor crash that requires a bumper cover repair, care must be taken to not impede the performance of this radar - for example repairs can commonly add strengthening material behind the bumper cover as an integral part of a repair - but this could compromise the radars performance.

Can we expect this additional repair cost to rise or fall going forward?

Repair costs due to ADAS inclusion will certainly fall in the future and the first driver for this is proliferation. The more common that these systems become, the lower the price of the technology and components will fall. The second driver is our insurance system which by including repair costs in its calculation, penalises manufacturers with vulnerable and expensive RADAR systems. This could motivate manufacturers to invent ways to more safely repackage the unit alongside the camera within the passenger compartment. Similarly, the post-crash alignment issue may be solved with either a more precise fault code check or some kind of auto calibration where, like high intensity headlights, the alignment is checked and corrected every time the system starts.

Interestingly, the final impetus might come from the styling departments who begin to push back against the ugly square plastic cover plates that RADAR requires at the visually prominent nose of the vehicle.

Are the improvements in safety a sufficient trade off for these repair costs?

Yes, AEB wins this argument every time. Taking the Volvo City Safe system for example, the LIDAR (Laser RADAR) sensor placed behind the windscreen has shown no appreciable increase in average repair cost but is saving insurers up to 20% in claims costs via accident reduction. Even the latest, but more costly RADAR systems come out on top by saving more through crash reduction than they cost in repair complexity.

Three years ago we saw data on one particular premium manufacturer from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety in the US that showed that AEB was reducing crashes and therefore average repair costs by $1000; about the same amount as the RADAR system cost to replace. This was the tipping point. Since then, the systems are being found on much cheaper cars, their price has fallen even further and the maths has swung categorically in the favour of AEB fitment.

Is technology becoming the critical component in automotive safety?

Thatcham has been part of a process to review  future  Euro-NCAP strategy for the coming years and whilst there are some advances still available in passive safety, the big wins are all seen as coming from collision avoidance.

How is the industry addressing the risk compensation effect of vehicles that are "harder" to crash?

There has always been received wisdom that says as cars get safer the driver is going to take less care. Historically however, we have not seen this in the data with seatbelts for example bringing a categorical decrease in death rate despite some party's concerns to the contrary. It's not always clear cut however as some research in handheld mobile phone use has shown. States where a ban is in place have in some cases reported higher crash rates. Has the ban led to many drivers using them underneath the dashboard; something which is significantly more distracting than holding it at eye level?

The key thing is driver cognitive capacity. If we perceive driving to be easy, then we will have a tendency to fill this newly spare capacity with additional activities such as eating or talking.

That's why these crash avoidance systems need to be utterly robust. If the systems are doing their job every time and drivers begin to rely on them, is it really a problem? Another important point is that if possible, they should be invisible until the very point they are needed. Systems that "cry wolf" tend to get turned off.

What does the future hold for ADAS?

The next big thing in terms of ADAS is junction assistance. This comprises side-view cameras or radar that prevent you pulling out of a junction if another vehicle is approaching. Because this protects the other vehicle, as well as motorcyclists and other vulnerable road users there are double savings to be made here.

Beyond that, manufacturers have stated quite publically that by 2020 we can expect to see semi-autonomous driving. In fact, the new Volvo XC90 that launches just next year has a queue assist function that by combining adaptive cruise control with the Lane Keep Assist will drive itself up to 30mph in city traffic. By building one function on top of the other it's not difficult to imagine how quickly we will see the fully autonomous car.

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