DUAL-CAB ute safety is somewhat of a chicken or the egg question: Did dual-cab utes become the bestselling vehicles on Australian roads because they have increasingly offered the safety of conventional passenger cars or did their popularity, especially as family transport, mean that manufacturers needed to offer more and more safety kit to maintain their competitive advantage?
There are outside influences, too, including the Federal government mandating of electronic stability control (ESC) on light commercial vehicles (LCVs) from the end of 2017, and demands for five-star ANCAP ratings for Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) from industry. Remember, the dual-cab you see as your Ďfamily carí is still classified as an LCV by the government, and in lower-spec variants is used in work roles.
The upshot is that the popular dual-cabs sold today have much more safety kit than dual-cabs of 10 years ago. Interestingly, thereís considerable disparity in the amount of safety kit fitted to these popular dual-cabs despite all of them, plus the Chinese-made LDV T60, achieving a five-star ANCAP rating.
Some safety kit such as anti-lock brakes (ABS) and electronic stability control (ESC) is of course universal, while advanced safety features such as autonomous emergency braking (AEB) are only just finding their way onto dual cabs. And there are inherent design features such as full-time 4x4 that contribute to safety but arenít often recognised as safety features.
All safety features, whether inherent or added on, either help prevent an accident occurring in the first place (primary) or reduce the consequences of an accident if one does occur (secondary). Hereís a rundown of the key safety features.
ALSO known as Supplemental Restraint System (SRS), airbags first started to appear in US cars in the 1970s. In part they were a response to the fact that, while seatbelts were mandatory fitment on cars in the USA by that time (and had been around for 20 years), it was more difficult to mandate people to wear them. Where seatbelts require active participation from the driver, an airbag doesnít, so the airbag solved the problem of the reluctant seat-belt wearer. Interestingly, the state of Victoria was the first jurisdiction in the world to make seat-belt wearing compulsory for the driver and front-seat passenger.
Initially airbags were just for the driver and installed in the steering wheel. Next came the front passenger airbag installed in the dashboard. Both these airbags protect the head and upper body. Side airbags, installed in the seats and designed to protect the torso from side impacts, and driverís knee airbags to protect the obvious soon followed. These have been more recently joined by curtain airbags, installed in the bodyís window and/or door pillars, and designed to shield the occupantsí heads from side impacts.
BRAKE Assist, or BA, sometimes called EBA (for emergency brake assist) or BAS (for brake assist system), helps maximise braking effort in an emergency. It does this by measuring the speed of the brake application and if that speed exceeds a threshold that suggests the driver is trying to execute an emergency stop, it will apply maximum braking effort if the driver hasnít already done so. Research suggests that some 90 per cent of drivers fail to apply full brake pressure when faced with an emergency. BA works up to the point where the anti-lock brakes (ABS) take over and is only fitted to vehicles that already have ABS.
ANTI-LOCK brakes, or ABS, as itís abbreviated from the German term ĎAnti-Blockier Systemí as coined by automotive-systems manufacturer Bosch, came into use in aircraft in the 1950s to help them stop on wet or icy runways, and appeared 10 years later in cars. The original systems on both planes and cars were mechanical, but once electronic anti-lock brakes were developed for the groundbreaking faster-than-sound Concorde passenger jet in the 1960s, the Ďelectronicí die was cast and electronic ABS began to appear on cars in the early 1970s.
Anti-lock brakes, as the name suggests, stop the brakes from locking up the wheel and the tyre skidding on the road surface. For emergency braking, ABS can modulate the braking pressure to provide maximum braking, which occurs just before wheel lock-up. This reduces stopping distances and, more importantly, allows the driver to maintain some degree of steering control, which is not possible with locked front wheels, and can even be difficult with locked rear wheels.
ABS uses wheel-speed sensors to tell it what speed each wheel is doing, how quickly itís slowing down and whether itís about to lock. That information is fed to an electronic control unit (ECU), or the Ďbrainí of the system, which then activates valves that modulate the hydraulic pressure at each of the individual brakes. ABS also uses a hydraulic pump to maintain the fluid pressure in the system.
The wheel-speed sensors are a simple but significant part of active safety technology and also underpin electronic traction control (ETC) and electronic stability control (ESC).
ELECTRONIC BRAKE-FORCE DISTRIBUTION
ELECTRONIC Brake-force Distribution (EBD) automatically varies the brake force on each wheel depending on the road surface, the speed and, importantly for utes, on the load, as this affects the attitude (nose up or nose down) of the vehicle. Under most circumstances, and especially when a ute is unladen, the front wheels carry the most load and do the most braking, so less braking effort is applied to the rear wheels so they donít lock up. With more load in the tub or tray, more braking effort is directed to the rear wheels. Like BA, EBD works in conjunction with ABS.
ELECTRONIC TRACTION CONTROL
THE development of Electronic Traction Control (ETC), starting in the 1970s, followed hard on the heels of anti-lock brakes. ETC shares the same basic hardware as ABS - wheel-speed sensors, a hydraulic pump and valving system - but requires new software programming, for where ABS stops a wheel from locking under braking, ETC stops a wheel from spinning under acceleration.
ETC was a response to increasingly more powerful cars and their propensity to break traction under acceleration on slippery roads common in winter in North America and Europe. Initial ETC systems used brake pressure on an individual wheel to stop it spinning, but ETC developed from there to a system that can also limit the engine power to bring wheelspin under control. ETC is also beneficial off-road. Itís like having an effective limited-slip differential at both ends of your 4x4.
Second-generation ETC systems for 4x4s add off-road ability and are specifically calibrated for off-road use. As such, off-road specific ETC is more like a locking diff than a good limited-slip diff in the off-road benefit it provides.
RESEARCH SUGGESTS THAT SOME 90 PER CENT OF DRIVERS FAIL TO APPLY FULL BRAKE PRESSURE WHEN FACED WITH AN EMERGENCY
ELECTRONIC STABILITY CONTROL
ELECTRONIC Stability Control, or (ESC), goes under a large number of brand-specific names such as Electronic Stability Program, Vehicle Dynamic Control and Dynamic Stability Control, but they all attempt to do the same thing with varying degrees of finesse.
ESC first appeared on production cars in the 1980s and built on ABS and ETC using many of the component systems already in place. However ESC introduces crucial new elements in the mix in the form of steer-angle, yaw, roll and lateral-acceleration sensors.
With information from those sensors, the ESC system is able to work out if the vehicle is heading in the direction steered by the driver, as measured by the steer-angle sensor, or heading somewhere else, as determined by the yaw, roll and lateral-acceleration sensors, as when happens when a vehicle goes into a slide or skid. If the ESC determines this is the case, which it can do often before the driver realises anything is awry, it will work to counteract the skid or slide by applying the brakes on one or more wheels, often to varying degrees on each wheel, or by cutting the engine power.
While ESC is well proven as one of the most significant safety advances, it can be a hindrance off-road in sand or mud, so not what you necessarily want in a 4x4 when heading off-road.
The problem is that in sand or mud, where youíre countersteering to correct any small slides, the ESCís reaction is to apply the brakes and/or cut engine power, neither of which you want when momentum is critical, as is generally the case in sand or mud. Typically ESC is automatically disabled when low-range is engaged and thereís also a switch to manually disable the ESC for sand or mud driving. The problem with ESC off-road is one of the reasons why some 4x4s are fitted with terrain-specific chassis-control systems (like Land Roverís ground breaking Terrain Response). When, for example, you select the ĎSandí mode on one of these systems, the ESC is desensitised, or even completely disabled.
TRAILER SWAY CONTROL
TRAILER Sway Control builds on electronic stability control (ESC) and is a specific software program that works within the broader ESC system to counter any vehicle instability that arises from towing. Typically that means towing caravans, boats, horsefloats, off-road trailers or anything similar, and is particularly relevant for utes given they are so popular for towing. When towing something thatís heavier than the tow vehicle, Trailer Sway Control is even more useful.
Towing instability can result from a tow rig where the weight distribution isnít as good as it could be, or can come about with crosswinds, rough roads, higher speeds, off-throttle deceleration through corners or a myriad of other circumstances. If the towed element starts to sway from side to side, that causes an opposite-direction yaw moment at the rear of the tow vehicle which, unchecked, can increase in amplitude until the vehicle-trailer combination Ďjack knifesí or possibly rolls.
When the Trailer Sway Control detects the beginnings of this type of oscillation it can brake individual wheels or cut engine power to help restore the stability of the vehicle-trailer combination.
LANE KEEPING ASSIST
LANE Keeping Assist is one of the newer safety technologies designed to help counter what can only be called poor driving, be that through inattention, distraction or allowing drowsiness to set in.
Lane Keeping Assist is distinct from Lane Departure Warning. Where the latter will warn the driver, generally with audible or visual alerts, that the vehicle is veering out of its lane, the former will actually help steer the vehicle back into its lane if the driver doesnít.
In the case of the Ford Ranger, with its programmable electric power steering (EPS), this is very easy to achieve. In the case of the Toyota HiLux and the Mercedes-Benz X-Class V6, neither of which have EPS, selective brake application is used to create a yaw moment that steers the vehicle back into line.
BLINDSPOT Monitoring uses cameras to detect vehicles that are potentially hidden in the driverís blindspots to the rear and side. The warnings are generally via a visual alert in the side mirrors and an audible chime. Blindspot monitoring is most useful on multi-lane roads and for detecting smaller vehicles such as motorcycles.
REVERSING cameras are now standard fitment on all the popular dual-cab pick-ups, and even on some cab-chassis variants.
The impetus for reversing cameras came from child injuries and deaths in driveway accidents, tragically most often from a parent running over one of their own children.
REAR CROSS-TRAFFIC ALERT
REAR Cross-Traffic Alert uses what is effectively a sophisticated wide-view rear camera to alert the driver, via the screen image and audible warnings,
of traffic approaching at right angles across the rear of the vehicle. Itís particularly useful feature in country towns with nose-to-kerb angle parking.
WITH TYRE DAMAGE COMMONPLACE, TPMS IS AN EXTREMELY WORTHWHILE SAFETY FEATURE FOR A 4X4
TYRE PRESSURE MONITORING SYSTEM
TYRE Pressure Monitoring System, or TPMS as itís generally abbreviated to, keeps a check on the air pressure in each tyre using pressure sensors in each wheel. The driver can bring up a display of the pressures in each tyre, but more usefully the system will warn the driver if a tyre is losing pressure generally well before the driver realises there is a problem. This potentially saves the tyre from completely deflating and being damaged beyond repair by being driven on when it is flat. Better still, it can help prevent a flat-tyre induced accident.
Given punctures and tyre damage is very much a commonplace event when driving off road, especially on showroom-stock tyres, TPMS is an extremely worthwhile safety feature for a 4x4.
AUTONOMOUS EMERGENCY BRAKING
AUTONOMOUS Emergency Braking (AEB) is the key new safety technology thatís beginning to find its way into dual-cab utes and it will be mandatory technology on all new cars sold in Australia by the early 2020s if current government plans come to fruition.
AEB is another of the newer safety technologies designed to counter inattentive driving and it provides a safety net to counter the same.
AEB uses radar and/or laser technology to Ďseeí whatís in front of the vehicle and to monitor the distance to whateverís in the vehicleís path, be that another vehicle or even a pedestrian or cyclist. If the system decides that a collision is possible it will warn the driver via visual and/or audible alerts. If the driver doesnít react by braking, and the system decides that a possible collision has become a probable collision, and the situation is critical, it will automatically apply the brakes without any intervention from the driver. AEB is distinct from Forward Collision Warning, which warns the driver of a possible collision but cannot apply the brakes.
OFTEN overlooked as a safety feature, perhaps because itís mechanical and not electronic, and a Ďbuilt-iní rather than added-on feature, full-time 4x4 offers a considerable safety benefit over part-time 4x4 and is a key safety divide in todayís dual-cab ute market.
The shortfall of part-time 4x4 compared to full-time 4x4 is most apparent on wet or otherwise slippery bitumen roads. Having just the rear wheels rather than all four wheels delivering drive means thereís more demand on electronic traction and stability control systems to prevent wheel spin or skidding. Full-time 4x4, unlike part-time 4x4, can be used on all road surfaces, so doesnít require any expertise to use as does part-time 4x4, where the driver has to decide when a road surface is slippery enough to engage high-four without risking potential damage to the transfer case.
As such, full-time 4x4 provides a greater safety benefit for less experienced or less knowledgeable drivers as it reduces the level of decision making required by the driver in variable (dry to wet; sealed to unsealed) road conditions.
RUNNING THE RULER ON SAFETY
ALL THE POPULAR DUAL-CAB 4X4S HAVE FIVE-STAR SAFETY RATINGS, BUT THEY ARE FAR FROM EQUAL IN SAFETY EQUIPMENT.
ITíS IMPOSSIBLE to give a definitive one-to-10 safety ranking of all the popular dual-cabs as itís impossible to assign a definitive weighting of all the safety features against one another. For example, is Blindspot Monitoring more important than Lane Departure Warning, or a driverís knee airbag? And is a primary safety feature like full-time 4x4 more important than a secondary safety feature like curtain airbags? Whatís more, while all the dual-cabs have, for example, electronic stability control, the calibration and therefore the effectiveness of the individual systems may not be identical. In the same way, not all Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) systems will work in exactly the same way in terms of judging the critical point of intervention. Thatís something that will have been programmed into the system using a set of protocols developed by individual engineering teams and will vary from ute to ute.
The good news is all of todayís utes are underpinned by a substantial raft of well-proven and effective safety technology, much of which didnít exist on utes not all that long ago.
Importantly, all of the popular dual-cabs have electronic stability control (ESC), a well-proven safety advantage. ESC also brings Trailer Sway Control, which is significant given utes are the default tow vehicles of today and towing anything heavy obviously brings considerable risks not involved when not towing.
It goes without saying that all of the popular utes also have anti-lock brakes and the other brake-related safety functions such as Brake Assist and Brakeforce Distribution. All of the popular utes also get front and side airbags, and all but the Amarok also get curtain airbags, and half of them, Holden Colorado, Mercedes X-Class, Mitsubishi Triton, Nissan Navara and Toyota HiLux, also get a driverís knee airbag.
Go beyond this baseline safety and more significant differences start to emerge in as much as AEB, which is considered to be the pointy end of todayís vehicle safety and will be made mandatory in the next couple of years, is only currently available on Ford Ranger, X-Class, Triton and HiLux, being standard on X-Class and HiLux across the range, and on all but lower-spec Ranger and Triton variants. Accordingly, these four vehicles emerge as the safety leaders among the popular dual-cabs.
Of this group of four AEB-equipped utes, only X-Class (V6 models only) and Triton (GLS and GLS Premium only) also have full-time 4x4, which arguably moves them up a notch from the other two with AEB but with part-time 4x4.
Of the four AEB-equipped utes only the Ranger and X-Class also get a Tyre Pressure Monitoring System, although the Triton counters this as the only one of the AEB-equipped utes with both Blindspot Monitoring and Rear Cross-Traffic Alert, although only in the top-spec GLS Premium model.
Itís hard to pick an absolute safety winner here, but you canít deny the Triton for offering as much or more safety kit than its competitors at a lower price.