Government pushes autonomous braking technology

Consumer Reports agrees, and thinks car shoppers need even more information

Published: January 23, 2015 02:00 PM

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced yesterday that the government will be adding two high-tech braking technologies to the list of safety gear it recommends to car shoppers: crash-imminent braking (CIB), also known as autobrake or autonomous braking; and dynamic brake support (DBS), a smart brake assist.

In a report released last August, NHTSA researchers estimated that if those two braking systems were on all cars they would prevent 4,000 serious injuries and save 100 lives per year.

At this stage the presence or absence of advanced technologies doesn’t affect a car’s safety ratings from NHTSA. That could change in the future.

Other recommended technologies were already featured in NHTSA’s 5-Star safety ratings on the site, including forward-collision warning (FCW), lane-departure warning (LDW), and rearview video systems.

The automatic braking technologies are usually add-ons to a radar or radar-and-camera-based forward-collision warning system that monitors the distance between your car and the one ahead. If the system calculates that the distance is closing too quickly, it will send out warnings such as audible or visual cues. If the driver doesn’t respond, the car will automatically apply brakes, either partially or with full force. The warning and automatic response can prevent a crash or at least mitigate the damage if the crash is unavoidable. The brake-assist system charges the brakes and readies them for immediate action if panic braking is needed.

It’s good that NHTSA has added these increasingly widespread features to its list of recommended advanced technologies. And NHTSA says it plans to add even more safety technologies to its rating system. We welcome that.

Meanwhile, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) recently elevated the importance of autobrake systems in its own ratings.  IIHS actually field-tests these systems and evaluates their effectiveness. In order to earn IIHS’s highest safety accolade, called Top Safety Pick Plus, 2015 models have to have an autobrake feature and it has to work well. That’s in addition to good performance in a suite of IIHS crash tests. 

Consequently, the cars that earn the coveted Top Safety Pick Plus designation can be easily identified and considered safer than their peers. To complete their safety research, car shoppers should also check the dynamic performance in Consumer Reports tests, including wet and dry braking and the accident avoidance maneuver.

Harvesting the NHTSA safety ratings

NHTSA’s website,, is home to the government’s well-known 5-Star Safety Ratings, which give details on government-run crash tests. Although it’s not the most consumer-friendly site in the world, persistence can pay off. One of the most fruitful ways to see which cars have advanced collision-avoidance features is to search by vehicle class rather than one make/model/year at a time.

To find, for instance, which model-year 2015 sedans have advanced collision-avoidance technologies, you visit, hit the “Vehicle Shoppers” tab, then the “5-star safety ratings” button, then the “2011-Newer” option, then “search by class,” then “sedans & wagons.” You’ll want to filter the results by year.

You end up with a list of several hundred models and variants. Most don’t have any crash-test stars but if they offer a rear camera, forward-collision, or lane-departure system, you’ll see it noted with an icon. Automated braking availability and its corresponding icon will be added soon.

Although we don’t formally rate these collision-avoidance systems yet, we do evaluate them. We find that they do operate as manufacturers claim, but we also find that some perform better than others. We do like most of the systems experienced on dozens of test cars. (Read: "Forward-collision warning saved my bacon and can save yours, too.")

If you’re shopping for a new car, we feel the latest suites of crash-avoidance gear well worth considering. For many, the improvement in occupant protection and crash avoidance available in today’s new cars can be a primary reason to trade in an older model.

Gordon Hard

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