Recently, while appraising the active safety features of 11 different models for our medium SUV Mega Test, something occurred to me.
As I trawled through specification sheets, struggling to distinguish terms like ‘brake support’ from ‘autonomous emergency braking’ and ‘collision avoidance assist’, I realised that if I – a professional motoring journalist – found it overwhelming, the average consumer must feel positively hoodwinked.
How on Earth is someone meant to cross-shop if the terminology and functionality of various safety systems are inconsistent not just between brands, but from one model grade to the next?
But hey, maybe that’s the point.
The more convoluted the language and the more obfuscated the capabilities, the less chance consumers have to identify gaps in a car’s standard equipment offering.
Or the more likely they are to spend more money in order to obtain the ‘safest’ car possible.
While things like seat heating, a sunroof, leather trim or self-park capabilities are all understandably reserved for more expensive variants, I take issue with the idea that things like reverse autonomous emergency braking or blind-spot monitoring aren’t offered from a car’s base grade.
Obviously, these technologies cost money and directly push up the final price of a car, but penalising consumers who can’t afford high-spec cars by actively withholding equipment that could save their lives seems a little bit twisted.
Especially since safety is possibly the one factor that unites all car buyers.
While we all have different requirements when it comes to budget, cargo space or performance, you’d be hard-pressed to find a car buyer who doesn’t want their vehicle to be as safe as possible.
And yet, the word ‘safety’ is almost weaponised in the car industry, with brands consistently trying to outrank each other by implying their car is ‘safer’, while consumers are left with very little ability to test or compare these claims.
The only recourse available to them is to dissect a vehicle’s ANCAP report, but even that can’t provide a perfect comparison.
Due to the independent safety body updating its methods every two or so years, not all five-star ANCAP ratings are equal, with more recently rated cars typically facing more stringent and in-depth criteria.
And yet, a car from 2017 and a car from 2022 can both claim a five-star rating (as long as they include the as-tested date).
Cars with more recently-issued five-star ANCAP ratings have been held up to stricter criteria than those tested earlier than 2020.
Of course, the fact of the matter is that any new car sold in Australia is required to possess a fairly high level of standard safety inclusions in order to comply with Australian Design Rules (ADRs).
The ADRs are national standards for things like the anchorage of seatbelts, or the stiffness and strength of the car’s side doors (to protect occupants in the event of a side impact).
Additionally, a new ADR was introduced in 2021 that will require AEB systems to be fitted on all newly introduced vehicle models from March 2023, and all models on sale in Australia from March 2025.
In short – you can probably assume that any new car you’re buying in Australia has a solid base level of safety, but it’s the extra features – like active cruise control, blind-spot monitoring or lane-keep assist – where things get confusing.
While the onus should be placed on consumers to do their due diligence by doing things like responding to recall notices or checking their VIN on HowSafeIsYourCar.com.au, manufacturers should bear some of the burden too.
I’d love to see entry-level variants in a model line-up receive a manufacturer’s full active safety suite – or close to it – as standard.
I’d also love to see some industry collaboration in terms of naming conventions for common features. Let’s call a spade a spade – or, in this case, let’s call ‘Autonomous Emergency Braking’, ‘Autonomous Emergency Braking’.
Additionally, we should impose rules on how brands describe their safety technologies – with plenty of thought given to whether a feature really warrants the term ‘semi-autonomous’ or ‘autopilot’, and consideration as to the repercussions of using this kind of language.
And let’s demand more transparency from manufacturers as to what their systems actually do.
That could mean full-page explainers in spec sheets as to the various capabilities and limitations, or disclaimers when active systems have limitations – like, for example, an inability to detect pedestrians, or operate at night.
One of the most exciting things about the car industry today is the massive leap forward being made in the safety realm.
Things are moving at a lighting-fast pace, and certain brands deserve recognition for outpacing others in their innovation.
Regardless, feeling safe in your car shouldn’t be reserved only for people who can afford to spend more, or for people who have intimate knowledge of the technology.
Make it standard, and make it make sense. When it comes to cars, safety should never be an ‘optional extra’.
Susannah Guthrie has been a journalist since she was 18, and has spent the last two years writing about cars for Drive, CarAdvice, CarSales and as a motoring columnist for several in-flight and hotel magazines. Susannah’s background is news journalism, followed by several years spent in celebrity journalism, entertainment journalism and fashion magazines and a brief stint hosting a travel TV show for Channel Ten. She joined Drive in 2020 after spending a year and a half at the helm of Harper’s BAZAAR and ELLE’s online platforms. Susannah holds a Bachelor in Media and Communications from the University of Melbourne and cut her teeth as an intern for Time Inc in New York City. She has also completed a television presenting course with the National Institute of Dramatic Art. She lives in Melbourne with her husband and her one-year-old son who, despite her best efforts, does not yet enjoy a good road trip.