VRUs in the headlights

January 25, 2024

By Roger C. Lanctot
Director, Automotive Connected Mobility

The reports keep coming in from far and wide.  Pedestrians – including cyclists – are dying in record numbers on roadways around the world and in the U.S.  The figures are up for all times of the day, but particularly at night.

Analysts have tried to parse the data to determine the source and nature of the increase.  We’d all like to see a solution to the problem and achieving some understanding might aid that effort.

The experts have looked at speeds, driver distraction, vehicle size and weight, but nothing appears to stand out as an obvious contributing factor – though all of these elements are suspect.  The proliferation of smartphones has certainly contributed and it’s possible that many drivers have been lulled into a false sense of driving security from the onset of advanced safety and collision-avoidance systems.

Advocates of C-V2X technology have held out hope that such wireless technology could be used to identify and avoid pedestrians, cyclists, emergency responders, roadside workers, and the like.  At best, C-V2X is capable of providing alerts but alone will be no panacea.

Sadly, research shows that sensor-based advanced safety systems, most of them based on cameras or radars, are not equal to the task of spotting and avoiding pedestrians.  The challenge derives from the variability in performance of these systems in identifying pedestrians accurately and alerting drivers with enough time to allow for a response.  Additionally, safety regulators have yet to agree on sufficiently rigorous testing protocols and requirements that vehicles be able to detect and avoid pedestrians – especially at night.

The best that can be pointed to are some European car models that have high-positioned hoods with space underneath to provide a softer landing for a pedestrian in a frontal impact.  Some European cars are actually equipped with external airbags.

Still, there is hope.  Owl Autonomous is one of a handful of suppliers, including Flir and Seek Thermal, bringing thermal imaging technology to the challenge of detecting pedestrians at night.

The U.S. has taken the lead in the effort to create a regulatory framework for pedestrian (and cyclist) protection – though the processes within the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the U.S. can be time consuming.  Owl notes that the agency is considering proposing a new rule including relevant testing to include pedestrian automatic emergency braking systems (PAEBs) that work both day and night at speeds up to 62 mph.

In proposing this rule, NHTSA, in the words of Owl, “has indicated that it is confident that the necessary technologies will soon be available.”  Owl believes that, at the latest, a mandate in the U.S. would cover all cars made after Sept. 1, 2028.  Once the rule is in place, testing of the new PAEB systems would be included in the NCAP program, Owl says.

Owl reports that the European New Car Assessment Program (Euro NCAP) began testing automatic emergency braking systems in 2014 and PAEB testing began in 2016 for front collisions and, in 2020, for reversing collisions.  Unfortunately, the conditions specified for testing do not yet include typical nighttime conditions.  Euro NCAP, in its Vision 2030 report, committed to extending its PAEB test requirements as soon as viable solutions are identified.

Owl also says that Japan announced late in 2019 that its Transport Ministry would make AEB systems capable of detecting other cars and pedestrians mandatory on cars made and sold domestically beginning in November 2021.  Imported cars and existing domestically manufactured cars are to be retrofitted by 2026, according to Owl.  All AEB systems installed after 2024 must also detect cyclists.  Owl says both pedestrian and cyclist testing are included as of 2022 in the Japanese NCAP protocol.

Owl quotes Japan’s Transport Ministry: “To further reduce the number of FSI (fatalities and serious injuries) in traffic accidents, we should accelerate the improvement of nighttime detection technology and implement it in more vehicle models, while considering the enhancement of the safety regulation for AEBS, which are already made mandatory, so they work also at night.”

It appears that regulators believe we have the technology to solve the problem.  Appropriate testing and certification must be done to ensure the reliability and efficacy of the technology, particularly at night and particularly with regard to the timing of alerts and allowances for driver response or automatic activation.  All agree that the problem is real and getting worse.  There is no question it is being prioritized globally, so implementation will now only be a matter of time.

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