Kelley Uustal Trial Attorney
October 7, 2019

AAA Study Finds Issues With Autopilot Systems’ Pedestrian Detection Technology

Pedestrian detection has long been a focus of self-driving technology developers. But with 16 pedestrians losing their lives every day in the U.S., these efforts still seem insufficient. According to a new study by the American Automobile Association, though pedestrian-detection systems hold great potential to prevent injury and death, they still have many troubling limitations.

The research focused on the performance of vehicles with automatic braking functionality. Though the study has put these systems in the spotlight, the AAA warns that they “are meant to add an additional layer of driver assistance and collision mitigation; they are not intended to serve as a substitute for an engaged driver.”

AAA tested four 2019 models; Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Accord, Tesla Model 3, and Toyota Camry, which feature automated braking and pedestrian detection technology. The study’s main qualitative conclusion was that the systems were “significantly challenged” in a variety of simulated scenarios.

The AAA researchers placed the cars in closed course environments and used dummies to test their automated systems’ abilities to detect pedestrians and avoid crashes.

In theory, Automatic Emergency Braking (“AEB”) featuring pedestrian detection, can issue an alarm to alert a distracted driver about the presence of a pedestrian, and, if the driver doesn’t react fast enough, the system can brake automatically to avoid a collision. About one in every three new cars features these functionalities.

Entitled, “Automatic Emergency Braking With Pedestrian Detection,” the new AAA report made some shocking revelations:

  • In daylight conditions, while traveling at 20 mph, the tested vehicles avoided collision with a crossing pedestrian only 40 percent of the time.
  • When vehicles were traveling at 20 mph, and a child ran into traffic from between two parked cars, 89 percent of the time, the child was hit. If the test vehicles were traveling at 30 mph, the child-dummy was hit every single time.
  • After the test vehicles made a right-hand turn at 15 mph, pedestrians crossing the road were hit every time.
  • In night-time conditions, the systems were “ineffective.”

To obtain night-time conditions data, AAA tested the vehicles without street lighting and with dummies dressed in black. This is a particularly sensitive area, given that about three-quarters of fatalities occur after dark.

According to a spokesperson for Consumer Reports, which has also carried out its own tests, “Darkness brings its own inherent risks and should be considered a more dangerous situation even when headlights are on. . . . if the system can react in time to at least somewhat reduce vehicle speed, it may have injury — and fatality-reducing potential even if a collision cannot be completely avoided.”

In certain scenarios, however, the AAA study found that the AEB systems with pedestrian detection failed to mitigate the effects of a collision they had failed to avoid. This is a critical aspect too, as drivers/systems being able to reduce speed has been directly linked to the rate of pedestrian survival following a collision.

The AAA report clearly indicates that the automobile industry will continue to face challenges as it develops new autopilot and crash-avoidance systems. The organization’s director, Greg Brannon, has stated that, “Pedestrian fatalities are really becoming a crisis,” and drivers should not rely on self-driving technology to prevent them.

While crash-avoidance technology is a big part of the auto industry’s current marketing messages, regardless of the tech’s steady evolution, the number of pedestrian fatalities on U.S. roads is on the rise.

As the tested vehicles’ manufacturers try to save face and emphasize the importance of an attentive and engaged driver, the new technology’s promise of safer roads and safer vehicles are still to be realized. According to Brannon, “It’s going to be a little while before the effectiveness of the system catches up with the marketing, unfortunately.”

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