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Are new car technologies worth shelling out extra money for?

9 min read
8 Sep 2015

Aussies love their cars. The most recent ABS data indicates that there are over 18 million motor vehicles on the road in 2015 – a 2.1% increase on last year. Of this figure, 75% are passenger vehicles. The average vehicle in Australia is 10 years old, which means significant portions of the fleet are ageing vehicles. This has huge implications for road safety.

Many of these cars won’t have some of the newer safety features that have become readily available on later model cars, like adaptive headlights, blind spot monitoring and lane departure warning. However, those new technologies come at a price – many of them are not available on lower cost vehicles, only being included by luxury car brands. If they are available for mid-range vehicles, they’re usually an optional extra that adds to the price. So, are these new car technologies worth shelling out extra money for?

Australians want safe cars

Safety is important to Australian buyers. In a survey done by Slater and Gordon, safety topped the list of considerations when buying a new car for young drivers. But the desire for safe vehicles is tempered by the associated cost.

However, good safety isn’t always about spending a lot on high-end vehicles to get the latest in-vehicle safety technology. Secondary safety improvements have gone a long way to improving car safety over the last few years.

Secondary safety improvements versus in-vehicle safety technology

According to vehicle safety watchdog ANCAP, vehicle safety is focused in three primary areas:

Structural integrity (secondary safety improvements)

Structural integrity refers to the design of the vehicle and the engineering of various core components, like the metals and plastics used in the car body.

Safety features (in-vehicle)

Vehicle safety features include airbags, anti-lock braking systems (ABS), electronic stability control (ESC) and seat belt pre-tensioners.

Safety assist technology (in-vehicle)

Sometimes these are called crash avoidance technologies. They don’t come standard on vehicles but are often offered on higher end vehicles or as optional extras on mid-range vehicles. Crash avoidance technologies include: autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring and fatigue monitoring.

Choosing a safe vehicle

When assessing the safety of your existing vehicle or a vehicle you want to purchase, it’s important to keep all three of these safety areas in mind. Structural integrity is the most critical safety component of any vehicle, so check with each manufacturer for information on model specific structural safety measures, or you can check out the ANCAP safety rating score of most vehicles sold in Australia.

Safety ratings matter; coupled with an alert and capable driver, it could make the difference between escaping a serious crash with minor, instead of fatal, injuries. Watch this crash test video to see how 1-star, 3-star and 5-star rated vehicles perform in an ANCAP test crash at 64km/h.

If you’re in the market for a used car, How Safe is Your Car provides details on many earlier model vehicles still on the roads in Australia.

5 fast facts on vehicle safety

1.Vehicles decrease in safety over time.

There are two reasons for this why the safety of a vehicle decreases over time:

  • As a vehicle’s condition deteriorates due to wear and tear, components are more likely to fail, making the car less safe.
  • New cars incorporate new safety technologies and secondary safety improvements, making them safer than previous models of the same vehicle, as well as other, older cars.

According to research conducted by the Accident Research Centre at Monash University, older cars are over-represented (meaning they appear more often) in serious vehicle injury incidents.

2. Cars ARE getting safer.

The road toll in Australia has nearly halved in the last twenty years, due in large part to the increased inclusion of safety equipment in new cars.

3. Airbags have saved over 2700 lives in Australia (and saved the economy $20billion).

Although airbags may seem like old news (the first airbags were use in vehicles as early as 1941, although they only began widespread circulation in the 1970s) they’re one of the most effective safety features in cars. 2700 lives have been saved in Australia since the 1990’s. Estimates suggest that nearly $20billion has been saved in lost productivity and other associated community costs that would have been incurred through more serious injury or death.

Is your car insurance protecting you? Compare insurers to make sure you’re covered.

4. Stronger steel is making cars safer.

Over the past 15 years, one of the biggest safety improvements for cars has been the increased strength of steel. In the early 2000s, steel had a tensile strength of 500 megapascals – steel today has strength of up to 1,500 megapascals. That’s a 200% increase in strength! The increased strength, and malleability of this steel, means that cars can be designed to perform better in a crash.

5. Cars are now designed to crash.

Yes, cars are actually being designed to crash. Instead of building heavy, tank-like vehicles, manufacturers are looking at ways to design car bodies to minimize the impacts of a crash. Engineers are using a variety of materials, like carbon fibre, aluminium and magnesium as well as varying strengths of steel to design cars to absorb and transfer the energy of an impact before it reaches passengers.

Safety Technology Defined

Although manufacturers may call similar technologies different things (like crash avoidance or crash prevention), they perform almost identical jobs. But the list of acronyms can get confusing: ABS, AES, AEB, ISA, ESC, LCS, BSM…so we’ve put together a glossary of safety technologies you should consider for your next vehicle purchase.

• ABS (Anti-lock brake system)

Since 1929 anti-lock brakes have been making cars safer but the technology has improved since then! ABS reduces the risk of skidding and allowing the driver to maintain control of the vehicle preventing wheels from locking up during heavy braking. ABS is standard on all new vehicles in Australia.

• ESC (Electronic stability control)

ESC combines ABS and traction control to help the car to prevent rollovers and skidding during if a vehicle is oversteered. ESC is activates when a driver loses control of a vehicle to prevent fishtailing. ESC significantly reduces the risk of crashes due to loss of control. Since 2013, all new cars in Australia must be fitted with ESC technology.

• Active braking systems

Active braking systems, sometimes referred to as autonomous braking systems, vary in form. Some basic versions alert a driver to hazards and/or impending collisions (like the ‘beep’ on a reversing sensor) while fully integrated systems will actually brake for the driver in an emergency situation. Although this technology is not currently standard on Australian vehicles, medical and safety authorities are calling for its mandatory regulation (see below in this article).

• Intelligent speed assist (ISA)

If a driver exceeds a posted speed limit, intelligent speed uses visual and auditory alerts to notify the driver to slow down. The technology uses GPS data to look at a vehicle’s speed in comparison to the speed indicated on the built in maps. ISA technology is not mandatory but is being trialed around the Australia.

• Traction control

Traction control improves a vehicle’s stability and skid control during acceleration. Traction control is required on all new cars in Australia.

Related: 6 Questions to ask yourself when purchasing a family car.

• Lane-control (LCS)

Lane control technologies (also referred to as lane keeping or lane assist) alert drivers they approach a lane marking by vibrating to stimulate a rumble strip or issuing an alert noise. Lane assist technology is also considered a fatigue assist technology, as many lane drift incidents occur during incidents of driver distraction/fatigue. LCS gently steers the car back into the lane safely following an alert.

• Park assist/automatic parking

Park assist is the first step towards a car that drives itself! Park assist technology uses sensors to park a car on the driver’s behalf; the driver actually takes their hands off the steering wheel and lets the car park itself. This is especially helpful in tricky, parallel parking situations. While the technology isn’t standard, it’s becoming more common. Toyota, VW, Mercedes, BMW and Ford are among the manufacturers that include the technology on some models.

• Active cruise control

Cruise control helps you to maintain a set speed within using your accelerator. However, active cruise control takes this technology a step further. Active cruise control senses the distance between your vehicle and the vehicles in front of you and actively reduces the speed of the vehicle to maintain a safe distance. Not all cars fitted with cruise control have active cruise control and neither cruise control nor active cruise control are standard on vehicles in Australia.

• Fog lights/running lights

Running lights increase car visibility even if the use of headlights isn’t necessary. Some new car models are being fitting with automatic running lights for safety. Fog lights allow drivers to improve their visibility (both seeing and being seen) during foggy conditions. Note that the use of fog lights when conditions do not warrant them is an offence in some states that may carry a fine. Neither running lights nor fog lights are standard safety features on cars sold in Australia.

• Reversing cameras/reversing sensors

By projecting an image of objects at the rear of a vehicle onto a dashboard screen, reversing cameras provide drivers with increased awareness of objects or hazards behind a vehicle. Reversing cameras suit larger vehicles where visibility may be compromised or small objects may be obscured (like children, pets and toys). Reversing sensors issue an auditory alert if a reversing driver approaches an object, like a parking bollard or another vehicle. Reversing cameras and reversing sensors are not standard technology but are available through most manufacturers as an added extra. Reversing cameras and reversing sensors can also be fitted after market.

National authorities call for improved standards

The Australian Medical Association and national car safety assessor ANCAP have joined forces to lobby the government to include Autonomous Braking Systems as standard on all vehicles sold in Australia. Their research suggests that including autonomous braking in all vehicles could reduce crash risk by 38%. Australia is falling behind international safety standards – this technology is already standard on cars in Europe, the US and Japan.

The AMA and ANCAP argue that, while other safety features are important for preventing injury or death if a crash occurs, preventative technology, like autonomous braking, helps mitigate the risk of driver distraction. And since 90% of all crashes are linked to human error, this type of technology could have an enormous impact, especially financially.

Costs associated with road trauma costs Aussies $70 million dollars per day ($27 billion a year).

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