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Status Report, Vol. 47, No. 1 | January 24, 2012Subscribe

Estimated time of arrival: New safety features take 3 decades to spread through vehicle fleet

Vehicles that warn drivers of hazards, put the brakes on for them, and keep themselves in their lanes already are on the road. Cars that can talk to each other are just over the horizon. Is the crash-free future here?

Not quite. It's true that safety features being introduced now could potentially eliminate millions of crashes. But even if these features were capable of preventing all crashes — and right now they're not — they won't be available in the vehicles most people drive for many years to come.

A new report from the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) shows that it typically takes 3 decades for a promising safety feature first introduced in a few luxury cars to spread through the fleet. More precisely, it will take at least that long before 95 percent of vehicles on the road could have a given feature either because it came as standard equipment or was offered as an option. For instance, it won't be until 2016 that 95 percent of all registered vehicles could have frontal airbags, the authors predict, even though manufacturers began adding frontal airbags in meaningful numbers during the mid-1980s. Forward collision warning, which was rolled out in the United States in 2000, could take even longer. If it continues to follow its current trajectory, the crash avoidance technology won't be available in 95 percent of registered vehicles until 2049, HLDI predicts.

"Technology is changing fast, but it takes time for it to reach the majority of vehicles," says Matthew Moore, an author of the report and vice president of HLDI, an Institute affiliate. "New features that prove beneficial aren't instantly available in all new models. And once they are, not everyone rushes out to replace their old vehicle right away."

Crash avoidance systems introduced in the past few years in luxury vehicles could cut crashes substantially. The Institute has estimated that if all vehicles were equipped with forward collision warning, lane departure warning, side view assist, and adaptive headlights, 1.9 million crashes — including 1 in 3 fatal crashes — could potentially be prevented or mitigated if the systems worked perfectly (see "New estimates of benefits of crash avoidance features on passenger vehicles," May 20, 2010). In the first real-world study of one such feature, HLDI found that claims under property damage liability coverage were filed about a quarter less often for Volvo XC60s equipped with City Safety, a low-speed forward collision avoidance system, than for similar SUVs without it (see "Volvo's City Safety prevents low-speed crashes and cuts insurance costs," July 19, 2011).

Future technology could include other potential game-changers. A consortium of automakers is developing vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications platforms that could take crash avoidance even further. Some manufacturers predict these systems could appear in vehicles as early as 2015. Meanwhile, Google has a fleet of cars modified to operate without a driver and has been granted a patent for the technology.

To help understand how quickly new technology might spread, HLDI looked at five existing features: antilock brakes, electronic stability control (ESC), driver frontal airbags, side airbags, and forward collision warning. All of them come with different expectations of potential safety benefits. Some are required by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and some aren't.

Researchers used HLDI data on the availability of features in each model and registration data from R.L. Polk & Co. If a feature was either standard or optional, it was considered available. Future availability was predicted by extrapolating the historical trends in the registration data. The researchers assumed that the number of new vehicles added each year and the attrition rate of older vehicles would stay the same.

Although the report projects availability in 100 percent of the fleet, safety features never become universal in the real world. Collectors own and drive classic vehicles, and some people keep very old cars for sentimental reasons. Leaving aside such holdouts, it would take a minimum of 24 years for the fleet to completely turn over under current conditions of approximately 240 million registered passenger vehicles and about 10 million new vehicles registered a year. In reality, it takes longer because not every new vehicle replaces one of the oldest.

Despite very different histories, all the features in the report take about the same time from the moment they're first introduced to the point when they're available in 95 percent of registered vehicles. Other than forward collision warning, which is still in its early stages, the most gradual spread is for ESC (34 years). The fastest moving features are head-protecting side airbags and antilock brakes (31 years). These estimates only reflect the maximum percentage of vehicles that could have a feature. The actual percentage that have it would be lower, since for some vehicles the technology would have been offered only as an option.

The path each feature takes on the way to 95 percent varies somewhat. Head-protecting side airbags, for example, shot up quickly in the beginning. It took 10 years for them to be available in 25 percent of the registered fleet, and it's expected to take 15 years to reach 50 percent. In contrast, ESC reached the one-quarter mark after 16 years and is expected to be in half the fleet after 20 years.

It takes a decade or more for a feature to go from 95 percent availability in the fleet to just shy of 100 percent, thanks to the small percentage of drivers who rarely replace their vehicles.

Federal mandates, safety ratings that reward certain features, and other factors can speed up the rate at which technology ends up in new models and therefore in registered vehicles. For example, if all new vehicles were equipped with forward collision warning starting in 2013, it would take until 2034 instead of 2049 for 95 percent of vehicles to have been sold with that feature available.

Interestingly, antilock brakes have spread quickly even though they were never required. Despite promising results on the test track, real-world crash data haven't shown large benefits from the technology.

"Antilocks quickly went mainstream when General Motors made them standard on some big-selling models," Moore says. "They got another boost from ESC because an antilock braking system is a prerequisite for stability control. Now that the government requires ESC on new vehicles, antilocks have essentially become mandatory, too."


Antilock brakes

Antilock brakes in their modern form were first introduced in 1985 models. Studies haven't shown large safety benefits for the feature on passenger vehicles, and NHTSA never required it. Nevertheless, antilocks spread quickly throughout the fleet. By 1990, they were standard on 17 percent of models and optional on an additional 12 percent. For the 2010 model year, they were standard on 99 percent and optional on 1 percent. HLDI predicts antilocks will be available for 95 percent of registered vehicles by 2015.

Percent of new vehicle models
with antilock brakes

Predicted percentage of
registered vehicles with
antilock brakes

ABS graph

Frontal airbags

Frontal airbags came to the U.S. market in the 1984 model year, following a brief period in the 1970s when a limited number of airbag-equipped cars were produced. The government began requiring their installation in some vehicles in 1996, and they have been required in all new passenger vehicles except the very heaviest since 1999. Still, it won't be until 2016 that frontal airbags for drivers will be available for 95 percent of vehicles on the road.

Percent of new vehicle models
with frontal airbags

Predicted percentage of
registered vehicles with
frontal airbags

frontal airbags graph

Head-protecting side airbags

Head-protecting side airbags were first introduced in model year 1998. By 2005, they were standard for drivers on 33 percent of models and optional on 29 percent. The Institute's side-impact tests, a voluntary agreement among manufacturers to improve vehicle compatibility in crashes, and, more recently, a strengthened federal side crash protection standard have led to near universal availability of the feature in new models. They are expected to be available for 95 percent of vehicles on the road in 2028.

Percent of new vehicle models
with side airbags

Predicted percentage of
registered vehicles with
side airbags

side airbags graph

Electronic stability control

ESC was introduced in 1995 models and was standard on 10 percent of 2000 models and optional on 4 percent. The technology dramatically cuts crashes, particularly rollovers. As a result, NHTSA required that ESC be standard on all passenger vehicles as of model year 2012. HLDI predicts that 95 percent of registered vehicles in 2029 will have either come with ESC standard or had it available as an option.

Percent of new vehicle models
with electronic stability control

Predicted percentage of
registered vehicles with
electronic stability control

ESC graph

Forward collision warning

Forward collision warning is available primarily on luxury vehicles, although recently it also has been offered by Ford, Chrysler, and other nonluxury brands. It first appeared on a U.S. car in model year 2000 and was standard on just 1 percent of 2005 models and optional on 2 percent. In 2010, it was standard on 1 percent and optional on 11 percent of models. If it continues to follow this pattern, it will be available on 95 percent of registered vehicles in 2049. However, if further research confirms the benefits of the technology, it could be expected to move faster.

Percent of new vehicle models
with forward collision warning

Predicted percentage of
registered vehicles with
forward collision warning

FCW graph

©1996-2014, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Highway Loss Data Institute | www.iihs.org