There was a time when Honda was the leading innovator of technology among the mainstream Japanese manufacturers. But it’s 2012 and times have changed. Subaru is taking on the technology race by releasing its EyeSight system on the range-topping Liberty and Outback models as standard equipment.
For the majority of new car buyers, Subaru's EyeSight system is revolutionary. In reality, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, although until recently most of the technology has been exclusive to high-end European luxury cars.
The real amazing fact is that for a circa-$50,000 car, EyeSight adds some incredibly powerful safety features previously unheard of for the price (the recently launched Mercedes-Benz B-Class does pack similar technology, albeit in a totally different segment).
We recently spent a week with a 2012 Subaru Outback 3.6R Premium model, which gets EyeSight as standard equipment (with no price rise over the 2011 model). It’s easy to notice the system's inclusion thanks to the two CIA-style monitoring cameras mounted on either side of the rear-view mirror. It takes a few minutes to get used to these two rather large cameras in the cabin, but after a while you’ll hardly notice them (although other drivers may wonder if you’re in an undercover police car).
Subaru EyeSight is the combination of seven different new-generation active safety features that will help prevent or limit the impact of a potential accident. They go far beyond what we have seen in cars for the past few decades.
The first and perhaps most useful in inner-city driving conditions, is the pre-collision throttle management system. It helps prevent the unnecessary and somewhat embarrassing situation of having an accident in a closed environment (such as a car park) due to incorrect pedal or gear selection.
For example, say you’re pulling into a car park and get distracted by a song on the radio or an incoming phone call, you quickly go for the brake pedal and accidently floor the accelerator pedal. This may seem unlikely, but it’s one of the most common causes of car park incidents. EyeSight's cameras can work out if there is an object is in front of your car when the accelerator is suddenly pushed and restrict engine output, significantly reducing the risk of damage or injury. It’s not the sort of system you’d deliberately want to test in case it doesn’t kick in for whatever reason, but with a few cardboard boxes put together to form a makeshift wall, it proved effective in our tests.
The second system is adaptive cruise control, which can ‘lock on’ to a vehicle in front and follow it at a predetermined distance and up to a predetermined speed. Essentially it takes the need for the accelerator and brake pedal out of the equation for long drives. All you have to do is steer. This is by no means a new feature as it has been around in both European and some Japanese cars for a number of years. It was notably included in the range-topping Toyota Prius i-Tech all the way back in 2009. The Subaru system is a second-generation unit and can bring the car to a complete stop with traffic and resume when the car in front starts moving.
Like similar systems in Volvos and Mercedes-Benz vehicles, it does have some limitations. For example, it gets a little annoyed when another car merges between you and the target car, leading to sudden deceleration. It can at times not even realise there is a car merging until it's right in front of your bumper. As a result, it’s important to not rely solely on the system for all your acceleration and deceleration inputs. In saying that, we enjoyed a drive from Brisbane to the Gold Coast without touching either pedal for almost an hour.
The pre-collision braking and brake assist systems are there to either prevent or limit the damage caused by a front-on accident. If the driver becomes distracted or disabled (e.g. suffers a heart attack) and the vehicle is driving straight into another object, the system audibly warns the driver of a potential impact and then automatically applies braking force if it detects a collision is forthcoming. In some cases this will stop the vehicle completely while in others it will simply limit the speed prior to impact, helping reduce the severity of the crash.
The assist system helps bring on full braking force in case the driver is not applying full brakes. By comparison, other systems tend to apply a preset amount of braking to limit impact. Some manufacturers argue that drivers must always remains in control and insists that if the system applied full braking force it may cause an unnecessary rear-ending. Subaru has taken the approach that if an impact is imminent, maximum braking is the way to go.
This system can potentially save many lives and as more and more manufacturers introduce it as standard equipement. Nonetheless, it can also be rather annoying. It does tend to get a bit alarmed when you’re accelerating towards another car to, for example, make a green light or prepare for an overtaking manoeuvre, giving you audible warnings that can drive you mad. If you’re a car enthusiast (or an aggressive driver), you’re likely to quickly try to turn it off. However, if you see cars more as a means to get from A to B then it’s likely to only come into play when needed.
The lane departure and vehicle sway warning systems are also part of the ‘can-drive-you-mad’ category. They give audible warnings when the car is drifting across a clearly marked lane without indicating or when the system recognises that the vehicle is drifting to the other side of the road unintentionally. It's all well and good in theory, but only after having it on for a week do you come to appreciate just how often you either cut clearly marked lines or leave your lane without indicating. It’s a great way to teach you how to drive within the lines and it does this by constantly blasting you with warnings like a high-school teacher.
Volvo has exactly the same issue with its lane departure system, in that it becomes really annoying, very quickly. We prefer the way in which the Germans have implemented this: a gentle vibration of the steering wheel when you drift out of your lane is a far more psychologically tolerable way of giving warning for a common mistake. The German cars go one step further and actually pull you back into your lane, which can be extremely handy in some situations
Last but not least, the lead vehicle start alert system is something we haven’t seen before. It essentially gives you a reminder if you’re in traffic and the car in front has started to move without you noticing. It’s rather handy and very unobtrusive.
Overall, it’s hard to fault Subaru’s EyeSight system for doing all that it can in the most cost-effective manner. One absent feature is the blind spot assistance system, which could only be integrated with additional hardware. The comparison to European cars in this case is largely unfair given the huge price difference, however, it’s a sign of how far Subaru has come with its safety technology.
On the whole, Subaru EyeSight is very effective and will undoubtedly help reduce the number of crashes on the road. It can get a little annoying at times, but we are sure if you lived with it long term it would become part of everyday driving. The first thing you have to do is learn to trust the system, and that can take a while (cue the Terminator music).