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Looking Forward to Save Lives with LIDAR and RADAR, not Backup Cameras

by Roger Lanctot | Apr 01, 2014

It is somehow fitting that the day before April Fool’s Day, when GM’s CEO will be testifying before the U.S. Congress on the now 2M+ unit ignition switch recall, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) delivered its long anticipated announcement of an implementation plan for “rear-view visibility systems.”  In other words, at the very moment that the global automotive safety community is focused on front-facing technologies for collision avoidance, NHTSA is looking backward.  

The so-called back-up camera mandate is now expected to be phased in on 10% of vehicles after May 1, 2016, 40% a year later and 100% in May 2018.  The announcement reflects the struggle of NHTSA to remain relevant and to enable and drive innovation in the industry.

LIDAR and RADAR technologies are in need of regulatory support to drive cost-reducing adoption for autonomous emergency braking (AEB).  Europe has taken the lead here, with the Euro NCAP five star safety ratings likely only extended to cars with appropriate front-facing collision avoidance technologies.  The phase-in of Euro NCAP requirements will mean standard fitment (100%) by 2017.  (For more on this subject, please see the Strategy Analytics report, Advanced Driver Assistance Systems: Euro NCAP gives $2.8 Billion Boost to Demand.)

In fact, the United Kingdom’s insurance research organization, Thatcham, went so far as to suggest a £500 incentive for consumers fitting optional collision avoidance systems – a suggestion that was rejected by insurers.  Thatcham says its research shows that 75% of collisions occur at speeds of less than 20 miles per hour.  Radar technology is more suitable to the requirements of collision avoidance involving greater distances and higher speeds.

The bottom line is that far more injuries and fatalities can be avoided via front-facing sensors vs. rear-facing cameras.  Required by the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act of 2007 the U.S., the back-up camera implementation plan for the U.S. arrives after years of public comment and research and after multiple unexplained delays.  It is perhaps no surprise that the U.S. is alone in its fixation on backup cameras.

The backup camera requirement is expected to save 210 lives annually and avoid 15,000 injuries.  Front-facing sensors, in contrast, are expected by European authorities to save thousands of lives and avoid far more injuries to vehicle occupants and pedestrians alike.

The implementation of the backup camera mandate in the U.S. reveals a regulatory environment that is reactive and lacking in vision.  It is reactive in that the government’s legislative arm appears to be taking the lead as in the case of the backup camera mandate.  It is lacking vision in its focus on V2V technology to the exclusion of front-facing LIDAR and RADAR technologies capable of saving thousands of lives and avoiding hundreds of thousands of injuries.

Part of the challenge for NHTSA is that it is mired in a political environment that is toxic to all forms of government intervention in industry.  This environment discourages research that is not tied to some constituency’s economic gain.  (In fact, if NHTSA had not chosen recently to move forward with V2V research massive layoffs would have undoubtedly ensured.)

The new Transportation Secretary, Anthony Foxx, and NHTSA missed a chance with the announcement of the backup camera mandate, to redefine its vision and objectives around collision avoidance with a front-facing focus.  To avoid any more April foolishness the agency must refocus its attention on more realistic and existing collision avoidance technologies – such as LIDAR and RADAR – capable of delivering immediate benefits to drivers, pedestrians and society as a whole.
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