A plea for drivers to slow down… assisted by in-vehicle technology

New advanced vehicle safety features will help achieve greater overall safety and transportation system performance well before fully connected or autonomous vehicles become common sights on roadways.

The suite of safety features starting to be required in the United States and in the European Union will make driveways, parking lots, and travel safer. Many of these features, like rearview cameras, are especially helpful as aids for drivers with physical mobility limitations (like I found out when I had a sore back and couldn’t turn my neck as far as normal), slower reaction times, and daily distractions (like, in my case, a family with kids and a dog in the car).

As a transportation engineer, I am sure that not everyone will have the same experience or wants when it comes to new car technologies designed to assist drivers. Personally, I’ve become a much more conservative driver as I get older — driving more slowly, leaving longer gaps between vehicles and giving a wide, comfortable clearance from bicyclists, and being much more patient overall.

I’ve also noticed how my recent purchase of a 2019 Subaru Ascent with EyeSight (the company’s name for its advanced camera based safety technology) has changed the way I drive. I enjoy how the EyeSight system provides minor steering corrections to help keep me in my lane and more significant steering corrections when I’ve found myself glancing in the rear-view mirror at my son.

More significantly, I’ve become a fan of EyeSight’s adaptive cruise control system, which Subaru says will “automatically adjust your speed to maintain your selected distance” from the vehicle ahead of you using a combination of cameras and forward-facing radar to monitor traffic ahead of the vehicle. For a good summary of the technology, check out My Car Does What.

In a larger vehicle, speed sometimes comes naturally. They pick up speed down hills and require more throttle going up hills. Further, the visual cues are not the same as they were in the smaller car I previously drove, and I often find that I am traveling faster than I think I am.

While the adaptive cruise control works well on the interstate, I also find it helpful on secondary highways when I travel for longer distances (with limited stopping) on roads that vary in speeds between 35 mph and 50 mph. Setting the adaptive cruise control and the preferred distance between my vehicle and the vehicle ahead is easy; and with a flick of the toggle on the steering wheel, I can reduce my speed in line with the speed limit.

Adaptive cruise control has changed the way I drive, allowing me to focus on the road and the task of driving rather than on the speedometer. That said, there is room for improvement. Particularly I would like the standard safety features to include a new setting: posted speed maximum.

Such a setting would allow the car to automatically read the speed limit signs (as my friend’s Audi does) instead of relying on the vehicle ahead to slow down while maintaining a fixed distance behind it. (Audi calls their system, which is part of their adaptive cruise control package and uses cameras to read speed limit signs, “Predictive Control.”) Instead, the system would automatically slow when the speed changes — even without a lead vehicle — and then I could drive with the confidence that I don’t need to monitor my speed every second.

I bet more than a few people reading this are wondering why I can’t just watch my speed like everyone else. In my defense, I try not to speed, but sometimes it just happens. Some readers may also be thinking that speeding is so commonplace they just need to do it, but the data prove otherwise. Car makers that used to brag about their “zero to sixty” acceleration and high performance now tout their safety features instead, given that they are far higher on most consumers’ lists of priorities (Consumer Reports and NSC Road to Zero).

Speeding is one of the most significant contributors to crashes and injuries. In the United States, in 2017 nearly 25% of all motor vehicle fatalities were attributed to speeding (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2017 stats). Annually in the US there are over 37,000 deaths on our roads — over 100 per day.

Speeding is also one of the most common traffic infractions that is easy to address with available technology. Introducing in-vehicle technology that can control for speeding could help reduce our speeding addiction. Other fixes can include speed enforcement cameras and vehicle software to prevent excessive speeding, among other options.

Our transportation system is mostly a public good and we have contributed taxes and fees over time to use it. However, it is not our right and not in the public good to impose an elevated safety risk on others by speeding. I can’t wait for more vehicles to have adaptive cruise control — or, better yet, automatic speed detection — using in-vehicle cameras (like Audi’s example) or GPS navigation based. However, these changes require new vehicles and given the average age of US passengers cars is 11.5 years — it will be some time until we can collectively benefit from these new safety features. I also welcome advances in fully connected or autonomous vehicles, but until then these advanced driver assistance systems can make our roads a little safer along the way.

I’m excited to hear readers’ thoughts and experiences regarding advanced vehicle safety systems. Have you used any of these systems before? How have they performed? Have they changed the way you drive? If so, how?