New technology designed to thwart vehicle collisions is often ineffective when it comes to avoiding pedestrians, according to a new study.
In tests conducted by U.S. motoring organization AAA, cars equipped with automated emergency braking systems struck adult dummy pedestrian targets crossing the road 60 percent of the time. Those closed-street tests were done during daylight hours with cars traveling 20 mph (32 kph).
When researchers made the tests more challenging by swapping adult dummies for child dummies, testing at night or driving at higher speeds, the performance of the emergency braking systems deteriorated.
"We wanted to understand how the systems work and get a feel for where they work well," said Greg Brannon, AAA's director of automotive engineering and industry relations. "We had hoped they would work well across all scenarios. What we found was something quite different."
The findings, issued Thursday, come at a time when pedestrian deaths have reached their highest levels in almost three decades, and new collision-avoidance technology is widely seen as a potential solution.
According to estimates provided by the Governors Highway Safety Association, 6,227 pedestrians died on U.S. roads in 2018. That would be higher than the 5,977 fatalities recorded in the previous year and the highest number since 6,482 were killed in 1990.
Amid the recent increase, pedestrians have accounted for a greater percentage of overall traffic fatalities. Pedestrians made up 12 percent of such fatalities in 2008; a decade later, that share increased to 16 percent, according to the association.
"The alarm bells continue to sound on this issue," said Jonathan Adkins, the organization's director. "It's clear we need to fortify our collective efforts to protect pedestrians and reverse the trend."
AAA's findings show just how far technology needs to improve to be a more comprehensive part of a solution.
When the tested systems detected a child at 20 mph, a collision occurred 89 percent of the time. At 30 mph, none of the systems avoided a collision.
When the systems encountered an adult immediately after a right-hand turn -- a common scenario that leads to real-world injuries and deaths -- none of the vehicles avoided a collision or even mitigated their impact speed, AAA said.
"Shockingly, there weren't notifications or speed reductions at night," Brannon said. "That's very troubling, considering 75 percent of pedestrian deaths happen at night. That's a definite concern."
Four vehicles from the 2019 model year were used for testing: a Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Accord, Tesla Model 3 and Toyota Camry. Each vehicle was outfitted with sensors and cameras to capture information about vehicle dynamics, position data and visual notifications from the detection systems.
Despite the underwhelming results, Brannon offered a silver lining. Though systems struck adult dummies 60 percent of the time in optimal conditions, that means they prevented 4 in 10 collisions.
"If it can save one life, it's worth the investment," Brannon said. "So we're absolutely supportive, and we want to see the systems made as effective as possible, minimizing false positives while maximizing the effectiveness. They're a good backstop to an engaged driver. ... They have the capability of potentially reducing these deaths, and it's a great area for automakers to be exploring."