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Automatic braking is a safety technology that automatically activates the vehicle’s brake system, to some degree, when necessary. Systems vary from pre-charging brakes, to slowing the vehicle to lessen damage. Some advanced systems completely take over and stop the vehicle before a collision occurs. It is critical that drivers understand the exact capabilities of their car’s automatic braking system. Regardless of a vehicle’s autonomous technologies, drivers should remain aware of their surroundings and maintain control at all times.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety points out that automatic braking or brake assist is an integral component of crash avoidance technologies, including front crash prevention systems, backover prevention systems, and cross-traffic alert systems. Each automaker may have a different name for such technologies, but the bottom line is that the brake assist is meant to minimize accidents.

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Active crash avoidance technologies use sensors, cameras, radar, and LIDAR to detect vehicles. Most systems issue a visual or audible warning when detecting an impending vehicle collision. Some also provide brake assist, by pre-charging the brakes to provide more power when the driver brakes. If the driver fails to press the brake pedal, the car brakes on its own. Some brake systems immediately apply the brakes without issuing a warning to the driver. Not all autobrake technology is meant to completely prevent a crash. Some systems’ primary goal is to slow the vehicle, so that the impact is less severe.

[Read About the Difference Between Autonomous Braking and Anti-Lock Brakes]

Depending on the type of sensing equipment and software, some systems have the ability to detect obstacles other than vehicles. These sensors can recognize pedestrians, animals, road debris, and stationary objects. New technology, just introduced as part of Tesla’s updated Autopilot 8.0, has been shown to be able to “see” two or more vehicles ahead, to more quickly anticipate potential problems.

Megan McKernan, manager of the Automobile Club of Southern California’s Automotive Research Center said, “Automatic emergency braking systems have the potential to drastically reduce the risk of injury from a crash. When traveling at 30 mph, a speed reduction of just 10 mph can reduce the energy of crash impact by more than 50 percent.”

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According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, rear-end collisions cause over 500,000 injuries and nearly 2,000 fatalities every year. Only ten percent of new vehicles include automatic braking as standard, and 50 percent offer it as an option. The U.S Department of Transportation plans to require standard automatic braking systems on all vehicles by 2025. However, twenty automakers – accounting for 99 percent of U.S. vehicle sales – have voluntarily committed to including the standard feature by 2022.

John Nielsen, AAA’s managing director of Automotive Engineering and Repair, concluded, “When shopping for a new vehicle, AAA recommends considering one equipped with an automatic emergency braking system. However, with the proliferation of vehicle technology, it’s more important than ever for drivers to fully understand their vehicle’s capabilities and limitations before driving off the dealer lot.”