Tech’splaining: What is Forward Collision Warning and How Does It Work?

  • Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience serving in automotive editorial leadership roles with Autobytel, Edmunds, J.D. Power, and Tribune Publishing. A married father of four, Chris is based in the Los Angeles suburbs and believes fuel cell electric vehicles will power the future.

can be reached at christianwardlaw@gmail.com
  • Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience serving in automotive editorial leadership roles with Autobytel, Edmunds, J.D. Power, and Tribune Publishing. A married father of four, Chris is based in the Los Angeles suburbs and believes fuel cell electric vehicles will power the future.

can be reached at christianwardlaw@gmail.com
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Though forward collision warning has been available for more than 15 years, you might not know what it is, or what it does. Let’s take a closer look at this technology, which, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), was found to reduce collisions with injuries by 20%.

Volvo-Pedestrian-and-Cyclist-Detection-System
Volvo was among the first automakers to offer pedestrian and cyclist detection technology as a part of its forward-collision warning system. (Photo: Volvo)

What is a forward-collision warning system?

Forward collision warning systems use radar, lasers, or cameras to detect other vehicles, objects, people, cyclists, and animals in the path of a moving vehicle.

If the vehicle is approaching any of these obstacles at too rapid a rate of speed, forward collision warning alerts the driver through visual, aural, or tactile methods. Sometimes the system issues a warning in just one of these ways, and sometimes with a combination of warnings. It depends on the system’s design and, if the option to customize the warning exists, how the vehicle’s owner has calibrated it.

Not all forward collision-warning systems work the same way. If the system is paired with automatic emergency braking, the technology will slow or stop the vehicle prior to impact if the driver takes no action. If the system is not paired with automatic emergency braking, it will only warn the driver, who then must take action.

Some forward collision warning systems operate only at slower city speeds. Others work at higher speeds. Some can detect pedestrians, bicyclists, and large animals, while others cannot. Some cars include rear collision warning, others don’t.

If this seems confusing to you, and you’re wondering how you can possibly figure out how the technology in your car works, the answer is easy. Look in your glove box. There’s probably a book in there called an owner’s manual. It will explain, likely in gloriously exacting detail complete with photos or illustrations, what your vehicle’s capabilities are.

Volvo-Pedestrian-Detection-System
It is important to know how your vehicle’s forward-collision warning system works. Some detection pedestrians and some don’t. Some provide audible alerts, others use visual alerts. (Photo: Volvo)

Your owner’s manual explains how your forward-collision warning system works

If you buy a vehicle equipped with a collision warning system, it is important that you understand how it works. You need to know what it can and cannot do to help you avoid a collision.

Research conducted by the Automobile Association of America (AAA) found that 40% of drivers who owned a vehicle equipped with the system did not understand its limitations, or that forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking are not the same things. Frankly, there is no excuse for this. Because owner’s manual.

Finally, if you own a vehicle equipped with forward collision warning, don’t assume that texting while driving is safer. It’s not. The systems that provide the information to the technology don’t always work, and for a variety of reasons. Forward collision warning is an occasional aid to a driver, not a regular replacement for a driver.

So put the phone down already.

And open that owner’s manual so that you know what your forward-collision warning system can and cannot do.

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About the Author

  • Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience serving in automotive editorial leadership roles with Autobytel, Edmunds, J.D. Power, and Tribune Publishing. A married father of four, Chris is based in the Los Angeles suburbs and believes fuel cell electric vehicles will power the future.

can be reached at christianwardlaw@gmail.com
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