The question I’m asked the most is also the most simple one,” says Matthew Avery, director of insurance research at Thatcham Research. “‘What is the safest car on the road?’ I’m beginning to think the answer is a white Ford Fiesta,” he says, nodding at a pretty convincing mock-up of the very same car parked on the runway ahead of us.
The ‘Fiesta’ in question is made of flexible, detachable plastic panels quite loosely fixed onto a moving base that looks like an oversized speed bump. It is, in fact, a robotised mobile target, with wheels hidden away underneath it and a top speed of around 15mph. And Thatcham has been using it to design, develop and prove a new batch of tests for the latest active safety and crash mitigation and avoidance systems fitted to new cars.
“These systems use stereo cameras, radar sensors and sophisticated image processing software to recognise threats before responding to them,” says Avery. “People might think we could simply drive at a pile of empty cardboard boxes to test an AEB [autonomous emergency braking] system on a car, but they’re not so easily fooled.
“The industry’s software engineers tell us that we have to use realistic targets in order to trigger the systems properly. So I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that those systems end up being particularly good at recognising white Ford Fiestas,” he adds, joking, “because that’s the kind of car our target happens to look like.”
We’re with Avery and his team of research engineers to get a taste of exactly what kind of tests of these assisted driving technologies Thatcham has been devising, because they’re due to become a parallel part of Euro NCAP’s new car safety testing regime later this year.
Founded in 1969 by the insurance industry, Thatcham is now a signatory member of Euro NCAP. “Twenty per cent of the total Euro NCAP safety score that a new car gets today is defined by the effectiveness of its driver assistance systems,” says Avery, “and you already get a 10% discount on your insurance if you choose a car with AEB.”
The industry picture we’re looking at now, as Avery explains it, is one in which almost every major car manufacturer is fitting what we call ‘SAE level two’ driver assistance systems to their cars: lane keeping systems that will work to prevent you from changing lanes into the path of another car, for example, or adaptive cruise control systems that not only recognise the current speed limit but can also automatically adopt it.