Safety

Pedestrian Detection Systems Just Don't Work...Yet

If your vehicle is equipped with a "pedestrian detection system," and promises to automatically brake to help you avoid a collision with a pedestrian, watch out: These systems perform inconsistently, and are completely ineffective at night, when 75 percent of all pedestrian fatalities occur.That's the takeaway from new AAA research which also found these systems are challenged by common real-world scenarios, such as a vehicle turning right into the path of a pedestrian – a test these systems failed every time, regardless of lighting condition. 

While AAA supports the continued development of pedestrian detection systems, drivers can not and should not rely on them to prevent a crash. 

On average, nearly 6,000 pedestrians each year lose their lives in a crash, nationwide, accounting for 16 percent of all traffic deaths – a percentage that has steadily grown since 2010. 

"As folks increasingly rely turn to bikes, scooters, and their own two feet to get to where they need to go, pedestrian fatalities have shot up," said AAA Colorado spokesman Skyler McKinley. "There's no question that pedestrian detection technology can save lives. But current systems are far from perfect, and still require engaged, attentive drivers. There's much more work ahead of us."

While time of day and location contribute significantly to pedestrian fatalities, vehicle speed plays a leading role. Previous research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that pedestrians are at a greater risk for severe injury or death the faster a car is traveling at the time of impact. A pedestrian hit by a vehicle traveling at 20 mph has an 18 percent risk of severe injury or death. At 30 mph, the risk more than doubles to 47 percent. 

In partnership with the Automotive Club of Southern California's Automotive Research Center, AAA evaluated the performance of four midsize sedans equipped with automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection. Overall, the systems performed best in the instance of the adult crossing in front of a vehicle traveling at 20 mph during the day. In this case, the systems avoided a collision 40 percent of the time. But, at the higher speed of 30 mph, most systems failed to avoid a collision with the simulated pedestrian target. 

The other scenarios proved to be even more challenging for the systems:

  • When encountering a child darting from between two cars, with the vehicle traveling at 20 mph, a collision occurred 89 percent of the time.
  • Immediately following a right hand turn, all of the test vehicles collided with the adult pedestrian.
  • When approaching two adults standing alongside the road, with the vehicle traveling at 20 mph, a collision occurred 80 percent of the time.
  • In general, the systems were ineffective in all scenarios where the vehicle was traveling at 30 mph.
  • At night, none of the systems detected or reacted to the adult pedestrian. 

"Automakers are on the right path with the intent behind these systems," McKinley said. "We've conducted this research to identify where the gaps exist to both keep consumers educated and let manufacturers know where they can work to improve their functionality."

For drivers, AAA recommends: 

  • Be aware of your immediate surroundings. 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. 
  • Read the owner's manual to understand what safety systems the vehicle is equipped with. Before leaving the lot, ask the dealer to explain how these systems work, what they look and sound like, and what triggers their activation.
  • Use extra caution when driving at night, as this is the riskiest time for pedestrians and where the systems struggled the most. Previous AAA research found that headlights, even in new condition, do not provide the amount of light needed for drivers to appropriately react to something or someone in the roadway. 

It is a driver's responsibility to yield to pedestrians. Still, those traveling by foot should be diligent as well. 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 never walk and text. 

Methodology

To assess the capabilities of pedestrian detection systems, AAA conducted primary research in partnership with the Automotive Club of Southern California’s Automotive Research Center in Los Angeles, California. Track testing was conducted on closed surface streets on the grounds of the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

Four test vehicles were selected (2019 Chevy Malibu, 2019 Honda Accord, 2019 Tesla Model 3 and 2019 Toyota Camry) using specific criteria and each test vehicle was outfitted using industry-standard instrumentation, sensors and cameras to capture vehicle dynamics, position data and visual notifications from the pedestrian detection system. Three simulated pedestrian targets were used including two dynamic models and each were outfitted with industry-standard instrumentation to time movement as well as receive position, speed and acceleration from the dynamic target. The complete methodology can be found in the full research report here

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