Heat-sensing technology could fill the pedestrian safety gap in automatic braking systems

Nearly 8,000 pedestrians are killed each year on US roads according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The technology, known as automatic braking systems, or AEB, is designed to detect obstacles such as pedestrians and stop the vehicle if a collision appears likely and the driver has not taken action.

Now, during Pedestrian Safety Month, an IIHS official is warning that many AEB systems on the road today don’t perform well enough in conditions where pedestrians are likely to be most vulnerable, but one tech company thinks it has a solution.

“We’ve seen a lot of progress in systems that help detect pedestrians and other cars during the day, but unfortunately around three-quarters of (annual) deaths happen at night. The systems don’t perform as well at night,” David Aylor, vice president of active safety testing at the IIHS, told Forbes.com.

Last August the IIHS released the results of its first night AEB tests which revealed how poorly most AEB systems performed at night. Four of the 23 midsize cars, midsize SUVs and small pickups tested earned the highest rating of superior, but more than half earned only a basic rating or no credit.

The top four performing vehicles were the 2022 Ford Mustang Mach-E, Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota Camry and Toyota Highlander. Those that received no credit were the 2022 Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Pilot, Nissan Altima and Toyota Tacoma.

The vehicles that performed best are equipped with the latest systems from their manufacturers that include higher-resolution cameras, radar and updated software, according to Aylor.

“We’re encouraged that some of these vehicles have done well in testing, and we hope that the manufacturer’s other systems will improve,” Aylor said.

Chris Posch, director of engineering at Teledyne FLIR, is convinced that the addition of his company’s thermal imaging night vision technology is the improvement that provides significantly more protection for pedestrians in low-light conditions.

“In addition to night vision, now the thermal camera actually works in conjunction with the other sensors in the vehicle to do things like AEB,” Posch said in an interview. “So this high-contrast thermal image… potentially uses radar and Lidar in combination. Now you have a really efficient system.”

Teledyne FLIR and VSI Labs partnered in 2019 to advance the use of thermal cameras to develop a visible radar thermal injection AEB system that would work better at night.

In 2020 testing at the American Mobility Center in Ypsilanti, Mich., its fused thermal AEB system passed 25 of 25 “effective pedestrian injury prevention” tests with only two instances where the vehicle contacted but did not roll over the soft pedestrian targets, according to a company summary.

Four commercially available AEB systems were tested and performed well during daytime testing with 42 out of 50 passes, but failed at night hitting targets in all but two cases.

“We really think that the combination…with the radar is a really effective tool. You use the visible, you can see it, you use the thermal, you have an unnecessary variety of sensors and you have the depth information from the radar. We really believe this is where AEB needs to evolve,” said Posch.

Teledyne FLIR’s Night Vision system is already installed in more than one million vehicles, but is not connected to AEB systems.

“I think it has potential,” said David Aylor of the IIHS. “Maybe not just pedestrians, but animal impacts and stuff. As a rating agency we want to constantly push the bar forward.”

The agency plans to conduct another round of night AEB testing as part of the overall Top Safety Pick test with results expected in early 2023, according to Aylor. If there are commercially available production vehicles that include the Teledyne FLIR system, they will be included, Aylor said.

With the documented inadequacy of current AEB systems to effectively protect pedestrians at night, the issue of government-mandated technological improvements is front and center.

Teledyne FLIR’s Posch is encouraged by the move by automakers to install AEB, but, “The voluntary effort to add low-speed AEB is saving lives, and now is the time for the next steps in testing, binding and regulations to address performance gaps to Pedestrians AEB to Help USA Zero Pedestrian Fatalities.”

The company believes these next steps should include:

  • Mandatory minimum performance level for AEB operation. Automakers should not imply 24/7 safety in all conditions, including at night.
  • Education. IHHS, NTHSA, AAA, Consumer Reports, should work to create a minimum performance level that will push automakers to address nighttime capabilities.
  • Congress should pressure IHHS, NTHSA, NCAP as pedestrian deaths increase.

David Aylor of the IIHS said his organization, along with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, are “technology agnostic” and noted that the recently passed federal infrastructure bill addresses some nighttime scenarios. However, “we would like the federal government to take it further,” he said.

Aylor also points out that the IIHS supports the development of more effective headlights to make it easier for drivers with or without AEB-equipped vehicles to spot pedestrians and other vehicles.

But on the necessary improvements to AEB systems, Aylor compares it to the evolution of the iPhone, noting: “Every year we have a new iPhone. Normally it involves more cameras, more hardware, cameras that perform better in low light. I think manufacturers are heading in that direction. We’re just not there yet.”

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