Buick's Different Sort of Collision Warning System


Buick added a host of safety features for 2013: a standard backup camera and optional cross-traffic and blindspot alerts to the Verano, a standard front-center airbag for the Enclave and optional forward collision and lane departure warnings for the new Encore. An interesting tidbit: Rather than repurposing the radar from adaptive cruise control mounted near or in the car's grille — often the way collision warning systems work — the Encore sees oncoming obstacles with a windshield-mounted camera that takes 10 to 12 images per second.

"It looks at the change in size of [the] object as you approach it," GM safety engineer Ray Kiefer told us last week. "It works much like the human eye."

The system doesn't engage automatic braking, which some do. But it could help avoid fender benders and lower repair costs for the ones that happen.

A study released last month by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports crash-avoidance technologies are having "some clear success stories." There's a catch, however: Forward collision warning systems with automatic braking in Acura and Mercedes cars reduced damage claims to other vehicles by 14%, but claim severity — the average cost of each accident that did occur — increased. Why? Sensors to operate the systems were among the first things to get crunched, adding to repair bills.

"In practical terms, this means that even a technology that improves safety won't necessarily reduce insurance costs, which reflect both claim frequency and claim severity," IIHS noted.

Collision warning systems may have some wrinkles to iron out. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently opened an investigation into the Infiniti JX35's collision warning system over inadvertent stopping. What's more, IIHS found crash-warning systems with automatic braking more effective than those without, like the Encore's system.

"We take a lot of care in developing these technologies," Kiefer said. "We're certainly [in] a learning phase in terms of getting a deep understanding of how these features are working."

How important is it to keep technology away from impact zones? Potentially a lot. Mercedes' forward collision warning system, which uses sensors embedded in the grille, reduced collision claims by 3%, IIHS said. But it raised the cost of each claim by $813.

"Installing the technology away from any likely impact point can help," IIHS spokesman Russ Rader said. "In [an] earlier study of Volvo's City Safety automatic braking system, collision claim costs were lower for Volvo XC60s equipped with City Safety than for other midsize luxury SUVs. Volvo mounts the sensors ahead of the rearview mirror on the upper windshield."

Now, so does Buick.

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Senior Consumer Affairs Editor Kelsey Mays likes quality, reliability, safety and practicality. But he also likes a fair price.  Email Kelsey