The Obama administration has proposed spending $4 billion to accelerate autonomous-car technology during the next decade. For $20,440, you can get a Honda capable of driving itself pretty well on a highway today.
Honda Motor Co. is releasing automated safety features on its entry-level vehicle Civic LX sedan, a step that takes some of the most sophisticated technology on the market available and makes it accessible to significantly more buyers, including younger ones. General Motors Co. set to launch a new version of its small Chevrolet Cruze this year that makes it the next compact car in line to add advanced-safety bells and whistles.
This reflects a growing availability of advanced-driver assistance systems, or ADAS, such as lane-keeping assist, automatic braking or adaptive cruise control in the market. As auto makers offer the components needed to power these functions in option packages as low as $1,800, they are being snapped up at a far higher rate than electrified vehicles.
After a decade of spending much of its time and billions focused on boosting fuel-efficiency, Washington is increasing its focus on technology that could save lives.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is considering ways to make ADAS features more ubiquitous, and Congress will hold a hearing Tuesday from Alphabet Inc. ’s Google X team and General Motors.
While federal officials and lawmakers ask questions, however, many safety advocates want Washington to immediately make these features standard on the millions of light vehicles sold in the U.S. each year.
This is a lot to ask of auto makers that still don’t make air bags standard in some emerging markets, and a lot to expect of rule makers with limited resources and tens of millions in annual vehicle recalls on their plate. But urgency is swelling.
Traffic fatalities jumped unexpectedly in 2015, up 9% during the first nine months of the year compared with the same period a year earlier.
Yes, Americans are driving more, registering a record 3.15 trillion miles on U.S. roads last year, but that is only a 4% increase. Distraction—drivers increasingly using smartphones as they motor along at high speeds, drunken driving and drowsiness—no doubt is contributing to the trend.
Auto makers are scrambling to accelerate autonomous technology. Tesla Motors Inc. has led the way with self-piloted features; Daimler AG ’s Mercedes-Benz is proliferating ADAS across its lineup; and General Motors, planning to introduce a “Super Cruise” semiautonomous system on pricey Cadillacs next year, is sinking $1.5 billion into two Silicon Valley startups that could help its cause.
Still, a test drive in Honda’s relatively cheap new Civic shows how today’s technology convincingly and economically attacks a growing problem.
On a 25-mile commute in Metro Detroit in Honda’s new Civic, much of the drive can be completed with hands off the wheel and foot off the accelerator as long as lane markings remain visible and another vehicle is in front of the car. A camera mounted at the rearview mirror watches the road, and the car’s central nervous system tells components when to slow down, swerve or slam the brakes.
Auto makers advise against treating ADAS-equipped cars as self-drivers. Questions about liability and a thicket of regulatory ambiguities lead to a cautious approach by marketers afraid of lawsuits or embarrassing situations. For instance, some owners have posted videos of hands- and foot-free driving on YouTube and the car inevitably makes a mistake.
Even so, reckless behavior is standard on America’s highways as people spend more time with their thumbs and eyes on a smartphone rather than on the road. Data indicates drivers are aware of their need for help.
WardsAuto.com estimates installation of adaptive cruise-control vehicles built in North America for the U.S. market, for instance, more than doubled in the 2015 model year compared with just two years ago, now representing 7.4% of vehicles rolling off assembly lines. Adaptive cruise is a critical building block for ADAS.
People will pay more than the $20,440 that Honda is asking. Executives at Nissan Motor Co. ’s Infiniti brand estimate 15% of buyers for the Q50’s $3,200 “technology package”—a suite of features that lets the $55,000 car drive on its own. That’s three times as many people who pay extra to buy a hybrid-electric version.
Putting the technology to compact cars is arguably the most-effective step toward mitigating the pain caused by distraction.
NHTSA estimates 10% of all drivers 15 to 19 years old involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted—the largest proportion of drivers who were distracted at the time of the accidents.
Drivers in their 20s are 23% of drivers in all fatal crashes, but are 27% of the distracted drivers and 38% of the distracted drivers who were using cellphones in fatal crashes.
These are the buyers of Honda Civics and the Chevy Cruze, which—even when equipped with ADAS—have sticker prices 41% lower than the average new car sold, according to Kelley Blue Book.
J.D. Power & Associates estimates 20% of compact cars are purchased by millennials, or people born after 1976, and that means those drivers are more apt to buy entry-level automobiles than they are inclined to select any other segment.