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A large decline in the number of automobile accidents would have a significant effect on one of the major sources of supply for automobile recyclers.

And that is exactly what federal safety regulators are forecasting, thanks to anticipated requirements for high-tech crash avoidance systems.

The federal Department of Transportation (DOT) recently announced it would pursue a plan to require vehicle makers to install devices that will let cars communicate with each other to avert collisions. The agency estimated that the technology could prevent up to 80 percent of wrecks not caused by impaired drivers or mechanical failure.

Michael Wilson, chief executive officer of the Automotive Recyclers Association (ARA), said such a drastic reduction in auto accidents would mean auto recyclers will be challenged to develop inventories of recycled electronic and mechanical parts. “It’s definitely going to be a very interesting next decade for this industry,” Wilson told members in the association newsletter.

The numbers support that conclusion. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there were 5.6 million crashes reported to police in 2012, the latest year for which figures are available. And about one in seven cars presented to collision shops for estimates of crash repair costs were totaled in 2010, according to insurance claims analyst CCC Information Services.

If the number of crashes shrank by 80 percent, that would mean 4.5 million fewer potential customers for replacement body and other parts damaged in collisions. And it could also mean hundreds of thousands of fewer totaled cars, many of which are processed by recyclers for scrap.
The projected decline in car accidents will be due in part to crash-avoidance systems such as the rear back-up cameras that are required for future vehicle models. However, the major decline will be caused by vehicle-to-vehicle, or V2V, technologies. These systems use wireless transmission to send a basic safety message 10 times each second to other vehicles equipped to receive it. The data includes information such a car’s location, direction and speed.

Alerting drivers to possible collisions, slowdowns, curves and other information would prevent accidents, DOT said. V2V could, for instance, help a driver decide if it is safe to pass on a two-lane road. It could inform drivers preparing to make a left turn across traffic. It could also alert drivers entering an intersection to a vehicle approaching on a collision course.

The V2V data stream amounts to 360° vision and ability to detect threats from hundreds of yards away. This includes vehicles that cannot be seen or in other situations in which on-board sensors are the only way a danger can be detected, DOT said. The vehicles will communicate in a manner similar to the Wi-Fi networks that computers use, employing a dedicated part of the radio spectrum.

Although the V2V technology is much advanced over current crash-avoidance systems, the devices have been tested extensively, including in real-world conditions. In 2012, a test involving 3,000 V2V-equipped vehicles and everyday drivers on normal roads was conducted in Madison, Wisconsin. This and other tests done at closed tracks and other locations across the country over the last few years indicates that V2V will be readily accepted by drivers and is highly effective at reducing crashes. Greg Winfree, assistant secretary for research and technology at the NHTSA, said the results showed “overwhelming safety benefits” from the technology.

It is not clear when exactly V2V will become widespread. NHTSA has not issued a proposal to require V2V technology, or said which specific model year would have to have the technology. “The timing of implementation will be informed by the comments we receive on our research report and additional information we receive as we pursue a regulation,” a spokesperson said. “We anticipate that completion of the rulemaking plus allowing manufacturers some lead time to get ready will take a few years.”

Several organizations are involved in developing the technology, including the DOT and other state and federal agencies as well as the Vehicle Infrastructure Integration Consortium, University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), and the Crash Avoidance Metrics Partnership. Eight car makers are also partnering, including Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen.

Crash-avoidance technology isn’t the only factor working to reduce the number of car wrecks. The number of private automobile insurance claims has been dropping for several years due to several influences, including an aging population, graduated licensing for younger drivers, fewer miles driven and the growth of the national vehicle fleet until the number of vehicles exceeds the number of drivers. During the last recession, economic forces also led to fewer claims, as well as fewer crashes.

V2V won’t eliminate all car crashes. For example, NHTSA said the potential 80 percent reduction doesn’t include wrecks caused by drunk drivers or mechanical failures such as blowouts. And as envisioned, V2V won’t automatically activate crash-avoidance maneuvers such as applying the brakes, which would further reduce crashes. NHTSA said it may add that capability to future V2V systems.

Another likely future refinement will be vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, or V2I. This allows vehicles to talk to traffic signals, work zones, toll booths, school zones and the like. V2V and V2I could also improve the speed and efficiency of traffic flow, and cut down significantly on the amount of time drivers spend in traffic jams.

With all its benefits and the significant amount of testing and recruitment already done, it seems very likely that V2V and other crash-avoidance technologies are on the way. Just when they will arrive is uncertain, but they could make an appearance in as soon as several years.

When all upcoming changes are considered Wilson told ARA members that the last decade of consolidation and other rapid change for auto recycling may in retrospect seem like a period of relative calm. “And while it may be 20 to 30 years for the market to be saturated with that new technology,” he said, “it will certainly lead to a significant paradigm shift for the automotive recycling industry.”

Published in the May 2014 Edition of American Recycler News