Driving safety: The future's now

By David Linklater

Cars that won't let themselves crash are already here

Hands-free driving, cars that talk to each other and sense danger, and even more airbags are all on the way.
Hands-free driving, cars that talk to each other and sense danger, and even more airbags are all on the way.

Volvo is still adamant that by 2020 it will produce a car that cannot crash. Mercedes-Benz recently sent a modified version of its new S-class 100km on public roads without a soul on board - not that it was an extraordinary achievement, because Google has already clocked up over 300,000km in driverless versions of ordinary production vehicles.

This much is clear: much of the future of car safety depends on autonomous technology. Because like it or not, the most dangerous element of driving is the human being behind the wheel. Most car crashes are caused by human error, so giving cars the ability to evaluate potential danger and take control away from the driver to prevent or minimise a crash is the next big development in car safety.

Does that sound like future tense? In fact, it's happening already, with some production vehicles employing semi-autonomous safety technology.

Let's take a look at what's new in vehicle safety, how existing technologies are continuing to develop, and what might come next.

THE NOT-QUITE-AUTONOMOUS CAR

At this point you cannot buy a genuinely autonomous vehicle. However, we are still getting a taste of what's to come, in terms of self-steering and braking.

Steering first. The growing popularity of electric-power steering (EPS) has been the key here. For years, makers such as Honda and Mercedes-Benz have offered power steering assistance that can alter its weighting to subtly suggest you steer one way or the other in an emergency situation. But that was just the beginning.

Some new-generation cars can actually steer themselves, taking control of EPS and using on-board cameras to keep themselves on track. Such systems are offered on both the Mercedes-Benz E-class and new Honda Accord.

No, you cannot simply put your hands in your lap and let the car do the work. At least not yet. In the E-class, for example, you must keep some tension on the steering wheel or the system will self-cancel. Same goes if the curve is too sharp. And you do of course need to be on a road with painted lanes.

Self-steering is an extension of lane-departure warning technology, which is now quite common. The simplest systems will detect if you are straying out of your lane and flash a warning on the dashboard. Others beep. Some (such as one launched by Citroen a few years ago) even send a vibration through the driver's seat.

So cars can almost steer themselves. They can stop automatically as well. Adaptive cruise control - enabling a car to automatically keep itself the correct distance from the vehicle in front - has been around for decades. But with the advent of camera-based systems (as opposed to radar or laser), cars also have a greater ability to "see" ahead, analyse the situation and automatically brake if necessary.

Volvo's City Safety is perhaps the most well-known automatic braking system, due to the company's highly publicised claim at launch in 2008 that it could prevent a nose-to-tail crash in traffic at up to 15km/h. The same technology is also used on many Ford vehicles. The latest versions of City Safety now stay active at up to 50km/h and incorporate pedestrian recognition. Volvo also offers full automatic braking at higher speeds as part of a different technology package.

Subaru's EyeSight works solely by camera: twin lenses behind the windscreen that create a three-dimensional view of the road ahead. EyeSight handles all the usual cruise control functions, but also administers autonomous braking (as well as lane-departure warning).

EyeSight-equipped cars were the top performers in recent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Front Crash Prevention (FCP) testing in America. The Legacy and Outback were the only cars to score the maximum of six points for their autonomous braking performance between 19-40km/h.

ANTI-COLLISION WARNINGS

Not all anti-collision systems have autonomous braking. But many do use cameras and radar to warn you of trouble ahead, by comparing the closing speed of your vehicle with the one ahead. Warnings range from a simple flashing light, to an audible alert, to a vibration in the driver's seatbelt.

Blind-spot monitoring is also generally based around radar technology. By projecting a beam out at an angle from (usually) the rear pillar of the car, it can warn you that there is another vehicle sitting where you can't see it.

A more recent development of that same technology is cross-traffic alert, which works when you are backing out of a parking space by warning you if another car is approaching at a right angle. Some versions of the new Holden Commodore VF have this feature.

But sometimes the simplest ideas are the best: reversing cameras are now widely available as both factory-fit and aftermarket items. They supplement parking radar nicely and are especially relevant for tall SUVs.

Then again, it's natural for carmakers to take a simple idea and make it complex. Many premium brands offer 360-degree parking cameras, which give you a Google Earth-type image of the vehicle as you manoeuvre. Mainstream brands are getting on board as well: Nissan has its own version, called Around View, on some models.

ACTIVE SAFETY

What about our old favourites: anti-lock braking and stability control? Both are still key active safety technologies and continue to be developed and calibrated for specific applications.

It's a sign of the times that neither rate much of a mention these days because almost every new car has both systems as standard. Twenty years ago they were a rarity. Given that stability control is arguably the most important automotive safety innovation of modern times, that's real progress.

Active and passive safety are united in the pre-crash preparation technology employed by some carmakers such as Mercedes-Benz and Lexus. When camera, radar and stability control systems determine that a crash is imminent, these cars can prime brakes and airbags, adjust occupant seating positions, close windows and pretension seatbelts - all in the blink of an eye.

SUPPLEMENTARY RESTRAINTS

This is the bad-news section: passive safety, or the features of a car that help protect you should the worst happen. Seatbelts, for example, which still do pretty much the same thing they have always done (albeit with developments like pretensioning technology) and are still crucially important.

Airbags continue to multiply. Front, side and curtain airbags are now accepted and often expected. Some cars go further with an airbag for the driver's knee, or extra bags in the back doors for side-impact protection. Volvo has introduced an external airbag for pedestrian protection, on the latest V40.

Belts and bags have also now come together with the introduction of inflatable rear seatbelts. Ford got there first, but Mercedes-Benz soon followed. Essentially, this technology incorporates an airbag-like structure within a seatbelt, which instantly inflates to around three times its normal diameter in a crash. We'll probably see this safety feature on 2014 models such as the new Ford Mondeo and next-generation Mercedes-Benz S-class.

FURTHER INTO THE FUTURE

Take all of the above as read - even those self-driving cars - and it's hard to imagine what new automotive safety developments could possibly come next. But here's a big one that's already being worked on by many carmakers: vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication, sometimes called V2V and V2I.

Basically, the thinking goes that if cars can talk to each other, it'll be much easier for drivers and on-board safety systems to avoid crashes. If you know there's another vehicle over that blind crest, you can be ready for it. Or if a car is out of control, it can tell other vehicles approaching to take avoiding action.

Similarly, if your vehicle can talk to traffic lights and even emergency services, you can be better prepared for traffic conditions and unexpected problems ahead.

V2I can also help with more mundane stuff like finding a parking spot, which is more convenience than crash-avoidance. But happier drivers are safer, too, surely?

- NZ Herald

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