Auto Outlook: Do ‘active’ safety systems cut insurance claims?

By AL SWANSON, UPI Senior Automotive Correspondent  |  July 8, 2012 at 5:30 AM
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CHICAGO, July 8 (UPI) -- The Highway Loss Data Institute has found a wave of high-tech systems that can warn drivers of imminent crashes and headlamps that pivot to illuminate around corners reduce accidents.

The preliminary finding was based on insurance claims analyzed by HLDI, a non-profit affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the organization famous for conducting new vehicle crash tests.

The study found owners of Mercedes-Benz and Acura vehicles that had systems that automatically apply the brakes when a forward collision appears likely made 14 percent fewer insurance claims per year.

Property damage claims by owners of Volvo and Mazda vehicles equipped with "adaptive headlights" that twist in the direction of a turn were 9 percent and 10 percent lower, respectively, HLDI said.

"So far, forward collision technology is reducing claims, particularly for damage to other vehicles, and adaptive headlights are having an even bigger impact than we had anticipated," HLDI vice president Matt Moore said in a release.

Automakers equipping their vehicles with both systems will be gratified by the report, but the institute study found lane departure warning systems, which tell a driver when he's drifting, did not appear to reduce accident claims.

The jury is still out on the impact lane departure warning, backup camera, blind-spot detection, driver fatigue warning, night vision assist, speed-curve warning and parking-assist systems will have on accident avoidance.

Some automakers like Mercedes use a system that can automatically turn the steering wheel to guide a wandering vehicle back into its lane.

"We do believe there are safety benefits to the lane departure warning system," Mercedes spokeswoman Donna Boland told The Detroit News.

In June, the government watchdog National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded in a report that forward collision warning systems had the potential to reduce rear-end crashes on U.S. highways by 15 percent.

"We are absolutely certain that they [forward collision systems] are preventing collisions," IIHS chief researcher David Zuby said. "The lane departure systems are newer and less common than the warning systems, so we'll have to wait for more data before we can look for a pattern there."

If forward collision warning systems are all they're cracked up to be, a $1,200 collision avoidance system installed on a vehicle would more than pay for itself if just one rear-end collision was avoided.

The active safety systems first appeared on expensive Mercedes, Volvo and Acura vehicles but are now available on more mainstream vehicles from a growing number of manufacturers.

Ford plans to add Traffic Jam Assist, and an advanced version of its parking assist to more models. Traffic Jam Assist uses radar and camera technology to help vehicles automatically flow with traffic and stay in their lanes.

Fiat bullish on Chrysler

In the same week Chrysler reported a healthy 20 percent sales jump in June, majority owner Fiat SPA announced it was buying more Chrysler shares.

The Italian conglomerate that bought Chrysler out of bankruptcy in June 2009 -- with help from a fully repaid $12.5 billion federal bailout -- said it was raising its stake in the Detroit carmaker from 58.5 percent to 61.8 percent "in the coming weeks."

The 2013 Dodge Dart compact, the first joint Chrysler-Fiat vehicle introduced since the Fiat takeover, reached dealer showrooms last month to generally positive reviews.

Fiat has an option to acquire up to 20 percent of Chrysler it doesn't own from The UAW Trust, a United Auto Workers trust fund that pays for retiree's healthcare, by buying 3.3 percent stakes twice a year through 2016, The Detroit News said, but there was no word from CEO Sergio Marchionne if Fiat would buy more.

Chrysler sales were up 20 percent compared to June 2011, GM sales were 15.5 percent higher and Ford sales increased 7 percent, with sales of the new Ford Explorer jumping 35 percent. Nissan sales were 28.2 percent higher in the United States, with sales of its upscale Infinity brand up 66 percent, and Hyundai posted a solid 8 percent sales hike over June 2011.

French mandate auto breath test

A week ago motorists and motorcyclists in France were required to travel with two single-use breathalyzer-type devices in a bid to cut the number of alcohol-related traffic deaths.

Mopeds, which are very popular in Europe, are excluded.

French officials plan to begin enforcing the new law on Nov. 1 after a four-month grace period and foreign drivers are included. Motorists entering France using ferry boats or the Channel Tunnel will be subject to random police checks.

A blood alcohol level of 50 mg in 100 ml of blood is considered driving while impaired in France.

The fine for driving without the breathalyzers is 11 euros, about $13.86. The single use devices cost 1 to 3 euros each, $1.26 to $3.78.

Tesla takes cue from Apple stores

If you've got the money for a Tesla all-electric vehicle, you may be able to order one in a retail shopping district much like going to an Apple store for an iMac or iPad.

The Chicago Tribune reports the newest Tesla Motors store -- its 12th in North America -- opened June 29 in Santa Monica, Calif. The upscale showroom is between an Adidis store and Club Monaco, which sells trendy apparel.

The Tesla Roadster sold for more than $100,000 but a new Model S hatchback costs half that and Tesla has taken more than 20,000 pre-orders for the Model X, a plug-in electric SUV.

All Teslas are built in California.

"We are deliberately trying to engage with people when they are not thinking about buying a car," Tesla sales head George Blankenship told the Tribune.

Coda, which is introducing a $38,145 plug-in electric sedan this summer, will offer test drives at events in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Initially, the Coda -- which is made in Harbin, China, and assembled in California -- will only be sold in California, New Jersey and New York.

GM saw sales of its plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt doubled in June over June 2011. GM sold 1,760 Volts last month and 8,817 during the first six months of 2012. That compares to 7,600 Volts sold for all of 2011.

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