Braking? On your own? That’s so 2012. Yes, in this brave new driving age we call 2013, more and more carmakers want their rides to be able to brake for you — in an emergency, that is.

Crazy as it seems, autonomous braking (which used to be a fancy way to describe running out of gas) is now a pretty common car safety feature. In fact, of the vehicles coming out this year, a meaty 12 percent include accident avoidance technology.

Of course, with all automatic braking technology, the main question isn’t about popularity, but effectiveness. So let’s figure out exactly how automatic braking works and what the experts have to say about its ability to improve driver safety.

The science behind automatic braking

From fiddling with the radio to just plain daydreaming, there are tons of reasons you might briefly lose focus in traffic and risk rear-ending the car in front of you. And that’s exactly where autonomous braking comes into play. Automatic braking systems (like Volvo’s City Safety) use infrared sensors usually built into the windshield to track your position amid other vehicles. If you start approaching another car too quickly, the system taps on the brakes for you, either slowing you down or bringing you to an all-out stop.

IIHS finds reduced claims in autobraking cars

While there’s plenty of debate and ambiguity surrounding forward collision avoidance technology, autonomous braking seems to be one example of it that’s making headway. In a recent study, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) took an in-depth look at Volvo’s City Safety feature and revealed some favorable results.

When compared to SUVs that didn’t have collision avoidance technology, Volvo’s XC60 SUVs (equipped with City Safety) had:

  • 33 percent fewer bodily injury claims
  • 15 percent fewer property damage claims
  • 20 percent fewer collision claims

And for Volvo’s S60 midsize sedans, City Safety resulted in claims reductions of:

  • 18 percent for bodily injury
  • 16 percent for property damage
  • 9 percent for collision

Possible issues with automatic braking

While the IIHS findings seem like cause for celebration, there are some important things to keep in mind. For one, most of these independent braking systems are designed for moderate-to-low speeds. City Safety, for example, can only activate your brakes if you’re going 31 mph or slower — it’s meant as a backup in low-speed emergencies, not as a cure-all for actively neglectful or risky driving. This distinction is one that could (I fear) get lost on some motorists.

Furthermore, we can’t pretend that data on one carmaker’s forward collision avoidance system speaks to the effectiveness of other systems. Even though preliminary studies on similar technology from Acura and Mercedes-Benz have also yielded positive results, there is still much more info to be gathered before we start drawing cut-and-dry conclusions. So far, automatic braking is very promising.

Other collision avoidance features that impact driver safety

Aside from automatic braking systems, other crash avoidance technology merits attention, for good and bad reasons:

Forward collision warnings

Included in 29 percent of 2013 cars, forward collision warnings alert drivers (usually with loud beeps) to cars they may be approaching too quickly. Cars equipped with this technology have seen reduced accident claims, but to a lesser extent than cars with automatic braking.

Adaptive headlights

Basically, the aim of these lights can bend and redirect to help you see when taking sharp curves. In cases studied, they lowered property damage claims by roughly 10 percent — impressive, considering most car accidents happen during the day.

Lane departure warnings

This feature, which alerts drivers when they’re veering out of their lane, is one of the few crash avoidance inventions that hasn’t had much success. In fact, it’s been linked to increases in accident claims and driver injuries in Buick and Mercedes models. Part of this may have to do with false warnings, which cause drivers to eventually just tune out the system altogether. Esurance conducted a distracted driving study about how this new car tech may affect accident rates.

Aside from seat belts“crash-proof” cars and other prudent measures,  one of the safest measures you can take is getting good car insurance. Get your fast, free auto insurance quote now.

Safe and smart | Smart technology


about Alex

As copywriter for Esurance, Alex had professional experience in everything from film to literature to (thanklessly!) correcting the grammar in friends' emails. As a fervent Minnesota sports fan, he spends most of his non-writing time gently weeping into cereal bowls.