WASHINGTON, Dec 21 (Reuters) - U.S. automakers installed automatic emergency braking technology that experts said could prevent thousands of deaths and injuries in just 19 percent of new vehicles sold in the 2017 model year, regulators and safety advocates said on Thursday.
Last year, 20 automakers struck a voluntary agreement with the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to make collision-avoiding braking systems standard equipment on nearly all light vehicles by September 2022.
The push comes as U.S. traffic deaths jumped 5.6 percent in 2016 to a decade-high 37,461, and pedestrian deaths rose 9 percent to 5,987, the highest number since 1990. By 2025, standard automatic braking systems could prevent 28,000 crashes and 12,000 injuries, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimated.
Automatic braking systems, which activate brakes when the technology senses objects ahead and the driver does not slow down, require more sensors and software than conventional brakes and add to vehicle costs. Automakers say they need time to engineer the systems into vehicles as part of more comprehensive makeovers.
Luxury automakers have been quick to install the systems, while others have lagged.
Tesla Inc and Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz unit have installed it on virtually all vehicles sold, according to figures released by NHTSA.
Toyota Motor Corp has the largest number of 2017 model vehicles with automatic emergency braking, equipping 56 percent of its fleet, or 1.4 million vehicles.
Volkswagen AG's VW brand has it in 36 percent of vehicles, while its Audi unit has it in 73 percent of vehicles. Subaru Corp has the technology in nearly all vehicles sold.
General Motors Co installed the technology on 20 percent of vehicles sold, while Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV has it in 6 percent and Ford Motor Co just 2 percent -- the lowest of any major automaker.
GM said it continues to expand availability of automatic emergency braking, and about two thirds of its U.S. models offer the system.
Ford spokeswoman Elizabeth Weigandt said the automaker offers automatic emergency braking on a number of vehicles and has "a plan to standardize over time."
Fiat Chrysler backs the 2022 commitment and a spokesman said it offers forward collision warning systems, which alert drivers to objects or vehicles in front of them but do no activate the brakes, on a number of vehicles.
Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said automakers are "playing roulette with the lives of consumers who cannot afford safety as a luxury." He said NHTSA must write mandatory regulations, not rely on a voluntary agreement.
Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Susan Thomas