In 2022, cars in many countries must start carrying automatic emergency braking. The technology has been around for years, but requiring it marks a major safety milestone for active safety. That’s the sort that prevents a crash instead of protecting you from its effects.
The European Transport Safety Council, a not-for-profit advocacy group in Brussels, estimates that automatic braking can reduce traffic death rates by as much as 20 percent. That’s about 4,000 lives saved each year.
The system—which uses cameras or radar to tell when danger’s up ahead and, if need be, hits the brakes—will be required in May in the European Union. In the United States all models that are new in 2022 come with it, although compliance is voluntary, pending formal rulemaking. Similar rules are also going into effect this year in dozens of other countries.
The EU’s regulations, conceived in 2019, seem to go the furthest, requiring as they do a number of other advanced driver assistance systems—notably emergency lane-keeping assist, drowsiness and distraction recognition, and intelligent speed assistance. That last one works by holding the car within the local speed limit not by braking but by limiting the power the engine sends to the wheels.
The rules require that the driver retain the power to override the systems, which makes for less intrusive nannying. Some people, however, kind of like being nannied. A case in point is intelligent speed assistance, which Ford has offered in Europe on the S-Max since 2015 and on the more affordable Focus since 2017, well before the EU had even decided to make it mandatory.
“In scientific trials, people were a bit resistant to [intelligent speed assistance], but once they got used to it they actually appreciated it,” says Dudley Curtis, a spokesman for the European advocacy group. “Ford marketed it by saying this was a way of never getting a speeding ticket again.”
Mandates aren’t the only way. Back in the 1970s, when antilock braking systems—the original active safety feature—started to become common, customers rushed to buy it as an option because they loved the way it stopped the car on slick pavement. Manufacturers made it standard before government agencies got around to telling them to. Formal requirements came long afterwards—in Europe in 2004 and in the United States in 2012.
Europe now requires emergency braking to protect only against forward collisions; it has broader goals for 2024.
Now the world is more tightly regulated—witness rubberized playgrounds—and the automotive world is tighter still. That’s because it’s moving toward the dream of self-driving vehicles, which demands universal standards. Baby steps that sneak toward that goal also demand tough standards.
The baby step that preceded emergency braking is known as forward-collision avoidance. When sensors see the car closing fast on an obstacle, the system flashes a light, buzzes an alarm, or even shakes the steering wheel, to rouse the driver to action; at the same time, it precharges the braking assist system to respond quickly when the driver does act. An emergency-braking system still does all that—if only to avoid startling the driver—but if it can’t coax the driver into braking, it will do so itself.
Deferring to the guy behind the wheel checks a lot of boxes—human pride, legal niggling, and the engineer’s fear of false positives. These do happen: Some experimental robocars have been known to stop dead in their tracks after mistaking a shadow for something more substantial. Today’s systems still can’t flawlessly identify objects smaller than a vehicle, such as a pedestrian or squirrel, or look at everything that may be happening all around the car.
That’s why the current European regulations require emergency braking to protect only against forward collisions, and only against collisions with big vehicles, not cyclists or pedestrians. Broader goals are on the EU’s safety agenda for 2024. (Note that this year’s requirements apply in full force only to completely new models; existing models will have until 2024 to comply.)
When IEEE Spectrum asked the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration why automatic braking is still only voluntary, the agency replied in an email that in 2022 it would issue a notice for comments on proposals to require such braking standard for both oncoming vehicles and pedestrians. That puts U.S. regulators about where the Europeans stood three years ago.
“America has done very little,” says Curtis. “But there are plenty of places in Europe that are problematic. Every year we do a report on mortality rates; the safest are still Sweden, the Netherlands—and I was going to say the United Kingdom, but my country has left the EU. At the other extreme are Bulgaria and Romania—Spain was doing poorly, but in a very few years it has come up to near the top of the list.”
All to say, drivers the world over can learn to drive more safely, and in 2022 a lot more of them will be getting a little technological help with that.
This article appears in the January 2022 print issue as “Brakes That Slam Themselves.”