iihs: pedestrian detection systems in most mid-size vehicles fail after dark

Drivers should be mindful of pedestrians at all times, but nighttime can be especially perilous for pedestrian collisions. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, pedestrian fatalities accounted for nearly a fifth of all traffic deaths in 2021, three-quarters of which occurred after dark. Even as more new vehicles employ automatic emergency braking systems with pedestrian detection, a previous IIHS study on the efficacy of such systems found they often fail to work in the dark. Now, the agency has launched a new crash test to evaluate the performance of AEB after the sun goes down.

Testing After Dark

The new IIHS test simulates two nighttime pedestrian scenarios: an adult crossing the road and an adult walking along the edge of the road parallel to traffic. For the crossing scenario, the vehicle is evaluated at speeds of 12 and 25 mph, while the parallel test is conducted at 25 and 37 mph. IIHS assigns a vehicle’s score based on its average speed reduction in five test runs on dry pavement, and with the headlights on high- and low-beam settings. If a car uses a camera-based system, the rating only applies to models with the same headlights as the tested vehicle because they may impact the system’s performance.

The Results

2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek | Manufacturer image

Mid-size SUVs and pickup trucks were the first set to be put through the wringer, and the results show there’s room for improvement. Of the 23 model-year 2022 vehicles tested, only four earned the top rating, superior, and seven earned the second-highest rating, advanced. More than half of the vehicles included in the first round of tests received a basic score or no credit at all (meaning they did not perform well enough to earn a rating).

The tested pedestrian detection systems come standard on all vehicles below with the exception of the Chevrolet Malibu, where it’s optional, and the Chevrolet Traverse, where it comes standard or optional depending on the trim.

Superior

  • Ford Mustang Mach-E
  • Nissan Pathfinder
  • Toyota Camry
  • Toyota Highlander

Advanced

  • Honda Accord
  • Hyundai Palisade
  • Hyundai Sonata
  • Nissan Frontier crew cab
  • Nissan Murano
  • Subaru Ascent
  • Subaru Outback

Basic

  • Chevrolet Traverse
  • Ford Explorer
  • Ford Maverick crew cab
  • Ford Ranger crew cab
  • Mazda CX-9
  • Volkswagen Atlas
  • Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport
  • Volkswagen Tiguan

No Credit

  • Chevrolet Malibu
  • Honda Pilot
  • Nissan Altima
  • Toyota Tacoma crew cab

Of those that underperformed in the nighttime test, models such as the Ford Explorer and Ranger, Mazda CX-9, Nissan Altima and Volkswagen Tiguan scored superior or advanced ratings in the agency’s daytime evaluation, emphasizing the toll darkness takes on pedestrian detection systems’ reliability.

The Nissan Pathfinder was the only vehicle in the group to ace the new evaluation by avoiding pedestrian collisions in the crossing and parallel scenarios at both higher and lower speeds. The Ford Mustang Mach-E and Toyota Camry and Highlander avoided a pedestrian collision in the crossing test at both speeds and in the lower-speed parallel test with both headlight settings. While none of the advanced-rated models were able to completely prevent impact in the higher-speed parallel test, all were able to slow down substantially to reduce impact.

Most of the advanced-rated models avoided pedestrian impact in the crossing scenario at both speeds, as well as the lower-speed parallel test, but only with high beams activated. None of the vehicles in this group managed to avoid impact at the higher speed parallel test.

Although some managed to avoid impact at lower speeds, all of the basic-rated models failed to avoid impact with the pedestrian dummy at higher speeds in the crossing and parallel evaluations. The VW Atlas, Atlas Cross Sport and Tiguan use a radar-only system without cameras; their rating is based on IIHS’ daylight evaluation.

Vehicles that did not receive a rating did not slow down enough — or at all — when nearing a pedestrian dummy in the crossing and parallel tests. All of these vehicles hit the dummy in every test with both low-beam and high-beam headlights.

The Implications

The immediate takeaway for vehicle owners is that they should not rely solely on their car’s pedestrian detection system, especially at night and in inclement weather that may obstruct the vehicle’s camera system. Shoppers should also note that the new IIHS test will factor into a vehicle’s Top Safety Pick award eligibility starting in 2023. A superior or advanced rating will be required in the nighttime test for the highest Top Safety Pick Plus award.

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