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Advanced Safety Technologies For Cars Come At A Price That Many Won't Pay


The investigations into the fatal Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes have revealed troubling details about safety. For example, Boeing was charging extra for a safety feature - one that might've helped the pilots in those flights. Boeing says it will now make that feature standard. We wondered whether the same could be true of safety features in cars.

Some new cars have features to avoid collisions or stay in a lane. Depending on the make and model, features like those could come standard or cost extra. David Friedman was acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and he's now on the policy side of Consumer Reports. Welcome to the studio.

DAVID FRIEDMAN: Thanks a lot for having me, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Let's start by talking about a feature called automatic emergency braking. I understand this is a technology that has been really widely adopted, largely because of a voluntary agreement where automakers said they'll make it standard by 2022. What does this do? How important is it?

FRIEDMAN: Well, this technology is fantastic. Basically, if you're about to rear-end someone, this technology will first warn you. And if you don't act, it will hit the brakes for you. And the data show that it could reduce rear-end crashes by 40 percent or more.

SHAPIRO: Now, I said it will be standard by 2022, but if I buy a new car today, am I likely to have this feature?

FRIEDMAN: Honestly, it's 50-50. If we look at 2019 model year data, about half of the automakers sell vehicles where the technology comes standard. Toyota, for example, and Honda have been making a lot of this technology standard on their vehicles. With the others, you may have to pay thousands of dollars to get that technology.

SHAPIRO: Is there something troubling about offering a safety feature that can save lives that costs thousands of dollars extra?

FRIEDMAN: I mean, to me, safety should never be a luxury, and that's effectively what the car companies are creating in these scenarios, or at least some of them.

SHAPIRO: So that's automatic emergency braking. Tell me about another technology that you think might not be standard but perhaps should be.

FRIEDMAN: Well, there's a few that we could think of. I mean, first, automatic emergency braking itself is great, but what about adding pedestrian detection so that if you're driving around town, you're much less likely to run into a pedestrian or bicyclist?

Or how about if you're driving down the highway and you're about to steer into another lane and you don't know a car's in your blind spot? A blind spot warning system could help save your life or help avoid you running someone else off the road.

SHAPIRO: You know, features like air bags and seat belts used to not be in every car. Today, they are. Do you think it's just a matter of time until these kinds of features are standard in every new vehicle?

FRIEDMAN: Well, time and again, automakers have developed amazing technology, but they have tried to get consumers to pay a lot for it and refused to put them standard in every car. So usually, regulators have to force them to put them standard in each car. And honestly, that's part of what happened with automatic emergency braking.

The federal government was getting ready to require all car companies to equip it, and so the companies, instead, said, hey, let's do this voluntarily.

SHAPIRO: So it's voluntary, but voluntary under duress.

FRIEDMAN: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: Do you see the kind of regulatory pressure that could make automakers standardize these other safety features that you're talking about?

FRIEDMAN: Certainly not right now, not under this administration.

SHAPIRO: If I'm an automaker and I've invested a huge amount of money in research and development of a safety technology, why shouldn't I try to recoup some of that money by asking buyers to pay a little extra for their car?

FRIEDMAN: If it was a little extra, that wouldn't bug me one bit. I mean, you look at Toyota, who has all that same technology. Almost all of it's standard in their base model of the RAV4, a car that costs around $27,000, $28,000. And Toyota's not having a problem making a profit. This is technology that can cost a few hundred dollars at the end of the day. This isn't bank-breaking technology.

SHAPIRO: Commercial pilots do get so much more training than anyone who gets behind the wheel of a car. Is there a risk that if you put all of these technologies in place - from automatic breaking to lane change, pedestrian sensor - that drivers start getting lazy?

FRIEDMAN: Well, the key to a lot of the technologies that we are talking about is they're proven to have on-road safety benefits. So they're out there in the market, and we can see them saving lives.

It's some of the more advanced technologies, where you can truly take your hands off the wheel and your foot off the accelerator and brake - those are the ones that concern us because of the way they're implemented today. Another technology we'd like to start seeing coming standard in cars is a simple driver monitoring system that can tell whether or not you're actually still driving.

SHAPIRO: David Friedman is vice president of advocacy for Consumer Reports. Thanks for coming into the studio today.

FRIEDMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.