A new study by the American Automobile Association (AAA) shows that automated emergency braking cannot be trusted when it comes to preventing running over a person crossing the street.
Tests carried out at just 20mph (32kph) showed that the braking system only avoided running over an adult-sized dummy 40% of the time.
However, somewhat encouragingly, during an additional 35% of the time, the vehicle automatically lowered its speed by 4.4mph, but nonetheless still crashed into the dummy.
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The tests included a 2019 Chevrolet Malibu with Front Pedestrian Braking, a 2019 Honda Accord with Honda Sensing Collision Braking System, a 2019 Tesla Model 3 with Automatic Emergency Braking, and a 2019 Toyota Camry with Toyota Safety Sense.
The results were much worse when testing the systems for children crossing the road. Using a child-sized dummy, vehicles only avoid running over the child 11% of the time, but in an additional 25% of cases slowed down by 5.9mph.
AAA comments that "evaluated pedestrian detection systems were ineffective during nighttime conditions".
The results for Tesla, which is pushing the boundaries of autonomous driving, don't look good either. Automatic braking cutting speed by an average of 2.8mph in three test runs and did not slow down at all in two runs.
The Toyota Camry performed well at this test. "On average, the vehicle was 35.47 feet from the pedestrian target when visual notification of a potential collision was provided. Additionally, automatic braking completely avoided impact with the pedestrian target for all five runs at 20mph," wrote AAA.
On a positive note, all tested vehicles did provide the driver with visual notification of a likely collision in each of the five test runs.
However, in five test runs with the vehicles traveling around a right curve, all of them ran over the pedestrian.
"When a pedestrian target was located immediately after a right curve, all test vehicles failed to apply any degree of automatic braking," the AAA writes.
"This demonstrates that evaluated pedestrian-detection systems were not designed to react to pedestrians when the vehicle is traveling in a curvilinear motion."
All the vehicles' automatic braking systems were useless at avoiding crashing into a child who darts out into the road from between two parked cars.
The AAA argues that more reliable automatic braking systems would be ideal given that a pedestrian is killed by a car every 88 minutes in the US, equivalent to 115 people a week.
In 2017, 6,000 pedestrians were killed by cars, accounting for 16% of all traffic fatalities. And pedestrian deaths have been trending upwards since 2012.
"Pedestrian fatalities are on the rise, proving how important the safety impact of these systems could be when further developed," said Greg Brannon, AAA's director of Automotive Engineering and Industry Relations.
"Our research found that current systems are far from perfect and still require an engaged driver behind the wheel."
As The Verge points out, an investigation by USA Today and the Detroit Free Press found that the popularity of SUVs is driving up pedestrian deaths.
There are also calls in Germany for a ban on "tank-like" SUVs after the driver of a Porsche Macan recently killed four pedestrians on a Berlin sidewalk. Despite environmental ambitions to reduce fuel-guzzling vehicles, SUV and 4x4 sales have surged in Germany too in recent years.
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The key message from the AAA is that drivers cannot and should not rely on automatic braking systems until they're proven to work consistently in all situations and conditions.
"Do not rely on pedestrian-detection systems to prevent a crash. This technology should only serve as a backup and not a replacement for an engaged driver," the AAA said.
But it also warns that pedestrians need to remain diligent as well and offers some elementary road-safety rules that the authorities could do more to publicize through safety campaigns.
"Pedestrians should use caution by staying on sidewalks and using crosswalks as often as possible. Always obey traffic signals, look both ways before crossing the street and do not walk and text," AAA notes.