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Auto makers study for the test: Why automated vehicles need to prove they can see bicyclists and pedestrians

Last week, Bill Nesper and I joined Champe Burnley from the Virginia Bicycle Federation and DRIVE SMART Virginia, to attend a tour and crash test demonstration at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). I want to thank DRIVE SMART Virginia for inviting us. We learned a lot about how they test and about what they’ve learned.

IIHS evaluates and rates car makes and models for crashworthiness: how well a vehicle protects its occupants in a crash. They buy cars from a dealership — in the same marketplace as the rest of us — and then crash them! Cars can earn a grade of Good, Acceptable, Marginal and Poor on how well their car protects the driver based on the type of crash.

The IIHS headquarters includes the results of their tests, they show models of cars after they have been crash tested for a front crash with either a small or moderate overlap, a side crash, and the roof strength from a roll-over crash. The IIHS also tests for head restraints and child restraints.


The testing of IIHS has had a significant effect of car manufacturers. Over and over on the tour, the IIHS pointed out how later models of cars had become safer after an earlier model had earned a Marginal or Poor rating. Manufacturers learned from the test and improved their models.

For instance, the government usually just tests head-on crashes. IIHS started testing crashes where the cars overlap just on one side. They did this with a moderate overlap and then with a small overlap. When they first started the smaller overlap they found many car models did not have reinforced or added protections for that type of hit. As IIHS continued to test this way, more and more cars improved protections for these types of crashes.

Over the last few years, IIHS also started testing passenger-side small overlaps, where in the past they had focused on driver side crashes. In June 2016, IIHS published results of passenger-side small overlap tests of small SUVs with good driver-side ratings. While all nine models had gotten a rating of good for protecting the passenger, only two had the same level of protection for passengers. The others all had lower ratings for the passenger side. When publishing that study IIHS also publicized its plan to do more testing of passenger-side testing.

According to IIHS Senior Research Engineer Becky Mueller, that announcement resulted in improved safety standards. “Clearly, some manufacturers were paying attention. Many of the cars in this group are equipped with improved passenger airbags that appear to be designed to do well in our test and in an oblique test that the government is considering adding to its safety ratings.”1

It is human nature to study to the test, and it works for agencies and companies as well. In fact we also rely on this in our Bicycle Friendly America programs which rate policy and programs that make bicycling better for all in states, communities, businesses and universities. That is why the League advocated for transportation performance measures that count bicyclists and pedestrians so that states would have to set and report their goal to reduce bicyclist and pedestrian fatalities and injuries. It is also why the League is advocating for a “vision test” for automated vehicles before they are allowed onto our streets in large numbers. The vision test is especially important given research showing Automated vehicles have a difficult time “seeing” bicyclists.

We were also heartened to hear that IIHS has added tests of crash avoidance and mitigation systems — technology that can prevent a crash or lessen its severity. It will also begin testing that technology for detection of bicyclists and pedestrians soon. This type of technology is being tested in current car models and is a critical component of all levels of automated vehicles. Automatic emergency braking also has a lot of potential for saving bicyclists and pedestrian lives, so we are happy that IIHS is beginning to bring these vulnerable users into the tests.

The League will continue to push for regulation requiring automated vehicles to be required to detect and respond to bicyclists and pedestrians. We also look forward to learning how car manufacturers perform in IIHS tests. We will be watching this safety technology evolve to make everyone safer on our streets — whether we are inside or outside of vehicles.

Thanks to Champe and his work in Virginia for this opportunity to learn more about IIHS. The League looks forward to continuing the dialogue.


1. IIHS, ON THE RIGHT SIDE: 10 midsize cars earn good ratings for passenger-side protection Status Report, Vol. 52, No. 7 | October 19, 2017 Accessed April 23, 2018.

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