Technology can save lives, especially in the auto industry. In today's day and age, many in the vehicle safety community believe there’s really no excuse for vehicles not to include Crash Avoidance Technology (CAT) as a standard feature. According to these experts, it is irresponsible and harmful for automakers to exclude the software and hardware that can help drivers stay away from other vehicles and pedestrians. Additionally, since so many automakers are already offering CAT, there's a strong argument that vehicles lacking CAT are not as safe as they should be.
If the vehicle safety experts are right, then automakers, not using CAT or those employing an inferior CAT, could be liable for any damages or injuries their substandard vehicles cause.
What Is Crash Avoidance Technology?
Crash Avoidance Technology (CAT) is an umbrella term for all driver assistance/safety systems that warn, alert, or assist drivers in avoiding imminent collisions and reducing the risk of crashes.
You may also hear others refer to CAT as Crash Avoidance System, Collision Avoidance System, or Driver Assistance Technologies. No matter the name, Crash Avoidance Technology focuses on reducing the number of crashes we see on our roads each year.
Generally, a driver will receive minor warnings such as sounds, a flashing signal, a tug on their seatbelt, or a steering wheel vibration. If the driver fails to respond, more advanced Crash Avoidance Technology can intervene, disregarding driver inputs, applying the brakes, or correcting steering automatically. You may already be familiar with some types of CAT, which fall under two categories: Alerts and Assistance.
Examples of Crash Avoidance Alerts:
- Forward Collision Warning (FCW) - Detects a potential collision with a vehicle ahead and provides a warning to the driver.
- Blind-spot Warning (BSW) - Warns of a vehicle in a driver’s blind spot.
- Lane Departure Warning (LDW) - Monitors a vehicle’s position within a driving lane and alerts a driver as the vehicle approaches or crosses lane markers
- Rear Cross Traffic Warning - Warns a driver of a potential collision, while in reverse, that may be outside the view of a backup camera (if any).
- Parking Assist - Feedback from cameras and sensors combine to allow vehicles to steer themselves into a parking space while the driver controls the speed.
Examples of Crash Avoidance Assistance:
- Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) - Applies brakes automatically when a forward collision is imminent.
- Adaptive Cruise Control - Automatically adjusts the vehicle’s speed to keep a pre-set distance from the vehicle in front of it.
- Electronic Stability Control (ESC) - Helps prevent loss of control in curves and emergency steering maneuvers by stabilizing a vehicle when it begins to veer off an intended path.
- Pedestrian Automatic Breaking - Detects a pedestrian in front of a vehicle and automatically applies brakes if a collision is imminent.
Currently, there are very few Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), aka crash test safety standards, that apply to CAT, so each automaker can design their vehicles with any, all, or none of these avoidance features.
All Crash Avoidance Technology Is Created
Equal According to a Manufacturers Will
Despite the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) securing, "a historic commitment by 20 automakers...to make automatic emergency braking (AEB) a standard feature on virtually all new cars," the commitment still allows manufacturers to produce vehicles without various CATs.
There's a lot to unpack in that statement, so let's break down what each part means.
What Did Car Manufacturers Agree to Do?
NHTSA reached an agreement with twenty select companies to have 95% of their "light-duty cars and trucks" include automatic emergency braking in the standard models by September 2022.
This is a great step forward, but the federal agency did not set any standards for how emergency braking systems should operate. As mentioned earlier, CAT relies on sensors/cameras/etc. So, if there is no industry standard, and twenty different companies are all installing AEB in their 2022 vehicles... there may be twenty different ways CAT is installed and used. This means some products will almost certainly be safer than others. If the better working technology is something other companies could have also designed and/or used, then one could argue the inferior systems pose an unreasonable danger to their occupants. Additionally, any newer vehicles that the automakers actively choose to not have AEB (or any other CAT) are inherently a less quality product than the majority of the other 2022 vehicles they produce.
Here's a clearer way to wrap your head around the situation. Imagine that the government says every restaurant must serve coffee because coffee is an enjoyable drink that people benefit from. Some restaurants start serving Starbucks, other restaurants decide to serve Chock Full O'Nuts, and still others decide to go with the cheapest option, a label-less can of unknown origins. Whatever a restaurant chooses, it technically meets the new mandate. Obviously, with products of such differing quality available, consumers will notice. Might the people who get the inferior coffee feel cheated? Without a doubt.
While this comparison may seem trivial, compared to the life and death stakes of vehicle safety systems, it illustrates that just having a general agreement doesn't guarantee that car-buyers will receive a system that operates as safely as it should. When the cost of an inferior product is that someone will die or suffer a horrific injury, that's a problem.
Designing the Best Crash Avoidance Technology Is Not as Simple as One May Think
To force companies to install a certain quality of CAT or a certain amount of CAT features, there must be a federal mandate. However, the government cannot mandate what does not exist.
CAT, by nature, is as artful as it is technological. CAT relies on multiple sensors relaying information to a vehicle's computer and then having software analyze all that information, in real-time, to make a decision that overrides driver control of the vehicle. If the sensors aren't up to snuff, the computer gets bad data, which results in bad decisions. If the decision-making software is not properly coded then even good data can end in bad results. When is the last time you bought software that didn't need an update to fix bugs? We don't mind the hassle of buggy software, because it's not a life or death matter. With CAT it is.
Let's compare this to safety features that are mandated. Seatbelts and airbags are mandated because there are only so many ways to make a seatbelt or an airbag. The mere act of requiring seatbelts and airbags did most of the heavy lifting because these safety features are mechanical and less artful. CAT, on the other hand, requires automakers to design numerous smaller features that all work in unison with one another. If that doesn't sound hard enough, even with how simple seatbelts and airbags are, automakers still routinely screw those up and install defective products. This means, there is a lot of room for error in CAT that could be fatal.
In order for the government to properly mandate CAT, there needs to be a standard CAT that all automakers can employ.
Manufacturers Can Be Held Accountable for Inferior CAT
Currently, the federal government has an agreement with twenty companies to include Automatic Emergency Breaking (AEB) technology in the majority of newly produced vehicles. This still is just an agreement and not a mandate because we have not determined what the minimum AEB standards should be.
Drivers are of course expected to be alert and to drive defensively, but crash science has shown that AEB could significantly reduce crashes due to driver errors. Similarly, other CAT features are already showing significant crash reductions, so if automakers do not install CAT features or use CAT that are less effective than competitors, could they be liable for a product defect or product liability case?
What if a vehicle's Blind-spot Warning (BSW) system does not properly warn a driver and a crash occurs? What if a vehicle's AEB doesn't brake at all or brakes too late? Are drivers responsible for the resulting crashes? What if a driver's vehicle doesn't have AEB, but if it did have AEB, a fatality would have been avoided?
Here's an Example:
Say Company A's AEB alerts a driver that a pedestrian is crossing the road 6 seconds before the crash and then applies the breaks 2 seconds before the crash, yet there is still a collision and the pedestrian dies. Company B's AEB alerts a driver that a pedestrian is crossing the road 8 seconds before the crash and then applies the brakes 4 seconds before the crash, and successfully avoids the collision. Clearly, Company B's AEB is a better product.
If the deceased pedestrian's family wanted to hold Company A accountable for using a lesser quality product, they would need to prove that it was economically and technologically feasible for Company A to use the same emergency braking technology as Company B. They could also argue that Company A's product failed to perform as advertised and is, therefore, is defective.
Automakers Are Liable for Three Scenarios
- Failure to Equip: Depending on a vehicle's model year, if it is missing a CAT feature (or, as is so common, that CAT feature was only available as part of an expensive luxury package), the resulting crash can be a product liability case. If an automaker could have prevented the injury or fatality with better Crash Avoidance Technology, they can be held accountable for their actions.
- Defective Crash Avoidance Technology: If an avoidance system, for some reason, fails to perform as expected (whether alerting a driver or overriding driver inputs), product liability law provides a remedy for victims against the system's designer and/or manufacturer.
- Failure to Retro-fit: This is in essence, a failure to equip liability. Although here, the potential liability extends also to a company vehicle. A company is responsible for their vehicles, and if they could have purchased a retrofit CAT kit (which there are numerous options), that gives rise to a potential product liability case.
Vehicles achieve the most sophisticated implementation of crash avoidance through combined information from multiple sensors and systems. Generally, more CAT features in a vehicle equal better crash avoidance, so vehicle safety experts want more than just AEB as a standard feature in all vehicles.
What if I Believe a Vehicle Defect Caused My Injuries?
The problem with injuries or deaths sustained from a vehicle defect is that on-site crash investigators rarely consider a defect to be the cause of a crash. This means that, in all but the most obvious cases, a driver takes the blame for the crash and the vehicle manufacturer continues producing defective vehicles with no consequences.
How often is a crash the result of a vehicle defect? We don't know for sure, as there are currently no federal reports analyzing this issue. Because of this, victims must be on the lookout for potential defects. Besides, victims are directly involved in a crash, so they tend to know when something isn't quite right.
Let's say you see a pedestrian suddenly enter a crosswalk. You slam on your brakes, but the crash still occurs. Crash investigators, whether a police officer or an insurance company, will assume you are guilty of inattention and speeding, and they typically do not consider your vehicle's safety features. However, you know that you specifically chose your vehicle because of the advertised crash avoidance features. Calling an award-winning personal injury attorney, such as Michael Grossman, is free and gets you a professional opinion regarding your crash circumstances.
If an attorney agrees that you have a case, they can connect you to client treatment providers so you get the medical care you need, often with no up-front cost to you. They can investigate your wreck by working with vehicle-defect experts that the police might not have on their staff. Lastly, much of a case is built from the documents and information the defendant has, and attorneys have the ability to obtain that vital information.
Holding Automakers Accountable Helps More than Just the Victims
No one wants to be in a lawsuit; believe me, I get it. They can be time-consuming, and filing a lawsuit is intimidating. Federal and state laws are difficult for most people to navigate on their own, but experienced product liability attorneys dedicate their careers to this work. Victims have a right to recover their losses, and victims have a right to hold wrongdoers accountable. In the bigger picture, victims who seek justice and remedies for their loss, holding careless manufacturers accountable can prevent future injuries for others.
Making producers bear the costs for their mistakes is more direct than waiting for regulators to make new rules. Additionally, these actions might even point out a mistake to an automaker they weren't previously aware of.
The bottom line is that safety experts believe no safety feature should be an option, and while the government may be slow in implementing regulations, that doesn't mean that companies shouldn't provide CAT to their consumers. As long as auto manufacturers continue failing to equip their vehicles with Crash Avoidance Technology (CAT) and continue failing to do so correctly, consumers are at risk. Easily preventable injuries and deaths are heartbreaking and must be stopped.
Anyone who feels they may be a victim of a vehicle defect deserves answers to what went wrong and if their losses could have been prevented. Preventable pain is the worst kind of pain, but victims don't have to endure that burden by themselves.