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Object detection in cars

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Scientists say our eyes actually only see 1% of what’s going on around us. That’s a scary thought when considering how much we do see (or at least, what we think is a lot) and raises the question of what our vision truly could be if we could see 100% of everything. The options are boundless, and when it comes to cars, it’s crazy to imagine the number of car accidents that could be avoided if we had vision that deemed 20/20 vision blind. 

It’s also said two heads are better than one and that a fresh pair of eyes or second pair of eyes is always a great thing. We usually don’t feel this way when we’re in the company of a backseat driver, but let’s be honest — there have been at least a few times in every driver’s life when a backseat driver has seen something we didn’t and helped us avoid an accident. What if all those components were combined into one useful, cautious, and helpful creation, without the interference of passengers who believe they drive better than Dale Earnhardt?

If that sounds like something you’d like to have, it exists, and it can be yours — for a “small” price, of course.

What is object detection technology

A new kind of helpful technology that is becoming increasingly common is crash avoidance technology, bringing about the invention of object detection technology. It’s becoming so common it’s a standard feature in many cars today.

This kind of technology has been used in things like video surveillance and special effects for years, but it’s come a long way in cars. Using radar and cameras, object detection systems merge information and send a signal to the car, which then initiates a sequence of avoidance strategies. Some systems may incorporate a flashing notification on an in-car screen or use a loud noise to get the driver’s attention. Other systems automatically tighten a driver’s seat belt and apply brakes. That’s the ultimate backseat driver — one you want.

While it’s not entirely new, this feature is now fine-tuned to detect two- and four-legged creatures, as well as bicyclists. Initially, object detection could only recognize other vehicles, ensuring drivers didn’t sideswipe those in blind spots when trying to switch lanes. Researchers drive cars too though, and know sideswiping cars is the least of driving worries when compared to others. The steady frequency of unsafe roads abound, so researchers sought ways to avoid other things on the road that cause accidents.

You can’t say “go-go gadget” just yet if you have a car with crash avoidance technology, but its new offspring is covering one of the biggest issues in safe driving — hitting animals. We’re already too distracted on the road anyways, using driving time to multi-task, so supplemental safety is now crucial. That’s today’s reality — but reality also includes curveballs like hitting deer full force.

Accidents involving a collision with an animal were on the rise from 1975-2018, leveling off since then, according to data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). State Farm estimates more than 1.9 million animal collision insurance claims filed between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019. 

With object avoidance technology, these numbers could decrease dramatically. Stuart Klapper, managing director of Autoliv, a manufacturer of object detection systems, believes they’ll help prevent such accidents. It doesn’t stop at deer either.

“In many cases, it will also detect dogs, cats, rabbits, and other four-legged animals,” said Klapper.

Other creatures it avoids are moose, cows, horses, and wild boar. Of course, not everyone has to worry about all of those animals depending on where they live, but if you have a car with this technology, you’ll at least be ready if moose ever do show up in your neck of the woods.

How much does object detection cost?

One step closer to Batmobiles must be expensive though, right? You bet — object detection systems start at around $40K — but there’s the perk of getting a car with it. Since it’s seen as a safety feature, object detection is normally included in car price. Talk about a two-for-one special.  It will likely become a featured item for many cars, and many luxury vehicles already have it. $40K is pricey, but fortunately, as systems become easier to install and develop, they begin trickling down to more moderately priced vehicles. For example, Subaru and Nissan recently installed object detection systems in some of their models.

If you’re wondering whether it’s worth it, there’s an important way to look at it. Any (wise) shopaholic knows one way to determine — or justify — buying something knows how to break down price with a logical rationalization — price per wear. “Cost per use” logic can be applied similarly when buying cars with object technology. You may have to spend a little more on a car to get object detection technology, but consider the accidents, damages, and stress you may be able to avoid because of it. Do you live in a rural area where Bambi and friends regularly hang out? Object detection technology’s cost can easily be broken down into “cost per avoidance,” so it can pay for itself and then some. Consider it an investment, likely with a high return once car repair or replacement costs from animal-related accidents and car insurance premiums are factored in over the years.

Presently, this isn’t a calculation you can be totally sure of since it still needs fine tuning. It takes time and effort to input various objects and run tests to ensure detection actually happens and responds. And what if you’re Alicia Silverstone and don’t want to brake for that squirrel? (Or bird, just in case you’re looking for a new nanny.)

Automation vs. instinct

Some drivers appreciate an extra set of “eyes” watching the road for them, but the fact that the system takes over the car may be a deal breaker for some. Because of this, researchers walk a fine line as to which animals (or at times, what) object detection systems will apply brakes for, but just because the system thinks it’s appropriate to brake for cats, there’s still a chance it could lead to more serious accidents.

Ander Eugensson, director of government affairs for Volvo, which now installs object detection in their cars, including pedestrian and bicycle detection, acknowledges this.

“Braking in itself can cause a crash. So we want to make sure not to cause a worse situation by avoiding one situation,” Eugensson said.

He also weighed in on what animals are detected, saying, “For animals, there’s a decision point on what type of animals we should brake for and what type of animals we are not to brake for. One of the biggest challenges is not to have activation when it is not desired, like false positives.”

For drivers, Eugensson said such a false-positive is “one of the worst things you can have.” It’s not a concern falling on deaf ears though.

“We spend extensive resources in trying to make sure we can avoid this,” he said.

Drivers who don’t want object detection aren’t heartless people who don’t think twice when hearing that gut-wrenching “thump thump” after hitting a squirrel. They simply may not enjoy automated systems determining when seat belts should be tightened and when brakes should be applied. Other drivers may appreciate the extra safety net. However, that’s not the biggest decision at hand. The most important decisions are — and always will be — behind the wheel. Don’t give up your eyes, ears, and attention just yet. One day, there may be an extra set of eyes in your car, but for now, it’s your eyes alone that should stay on the road.

Does object detection and other technology features lower your insurance rates?

While object detection does not necessarily lower your insurance rates, it can be a way to earn yourself some extra discounts on your auto premium. Car insurance companies are well aware of the costs associated with object detection, knowing this kind of technology can be very expensive to fix. Although your rates may account for higher repair costs, you can still find technology discounts from companies like State Farm and Progressive.

The takeaway

  • Car accidents involving deer is a high risk, especially during the months of October to December.
  • A spin-off from crash avoidance technology, object detection technology is becoming a common feature in the average car.
  • Systems can cost up to $40K but can also come pre-installed with many new vehicles.
  • Object detection technology won’t necessarily save you money on your car insurance premium overall, but you may receive extra safety discounts.

As technology continues to evolve, you will find that object detection technology is more and more a part of our future. It is also becoming more affordable, as many car manufacturers continue to offer upgraded safety and technology packages to keep you and your family safe. Although the higher cost for repairs may net a higher premium, ask your provider about discounts that you might be able to leverage for savings.

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