The Future of Car Safety

Posted on July 1st, 2014 by Rob Marshall

The Future of Car Safety

With the motorcar evolving continually, Rob Marshall reaches for his crystal ball and glances into what the future holds for car safety.

1st July 2014

Although huge safety advances pre-date them, self-piloting, ‘autonomous’ cars tend to be in-vogue, when any conversation is raised about the future of road safety. Driving is a skill, as is hazard awareness and the prompt decision-making that goes with it but, with the majority of incidents being attributed to driver error (not helped by only a tiny minority of motorists in Great Britain that undergo additional training), it makes logical sense to remove the error-prone human from the equation altogether. Or does it? While I hope that the powerful computers, within the hotly-anticipated autonomous vehicle, will be more reliable than my crash-prone PC, car fans are already both mocking and raising their hands in horror but technology has been taking over, bit-by-bit, for many years.

The Future of Car Safety

Technology has helped drivers maintain a safety zone around their vehicles but are we at risk of becoming over-reliant?

Technology Overtaking Human Ability

Driver aids have seen advanced skills being replicated by technology and anti-lock brakes and brake-assist systems have morphed into more sophisticated equipment that replace driver command, rather than assisting. Examples include autonomous braking, steering correction (including some types that even compensate for cross-winds) and adaptive/distance cruise control. In some ways, the car can self-drive already and several models are on-sale today that can even park themselves. While such impressive advances might make some drivers lazy, it demonstrates that a self-driving car is feasible, with today’s technology.

In some ways, the car can self-drive already and several models are on-sale today that can even park themselves.

Obstacles to Reality

The problems stem from ensuring that the driverless vehicle can be trusted safely, within the typically gridlocked cityscape, especially when the system becomes confronted with broken traffic lights and worn road markings that are hallmarks of the typical British motoring scene. With so many manufacturers developing their own systems independently, a degree of standardisation will be required, so that every make and model speaks the same language.

Although well-publicised trials are ongoing (including road trains for motorways and A-roads), self-driving cars have the potential for huge safety benefits but, no matter how sensational the headlines sound, basic physics will ensure that any heavy vehicle cannot stop from 60mph instantly. Exciting they might be; deities they are not.

self-driving cars have the potential for huge safety benefits but… basic physics will ensure that any heavy vehicle cannot stop from 60mph instantly

Another problem is raised, when governments place greater emphasis on technology improving road safety, for political point-scoring, rather than focussing on training-out the human error, the benefits of which might be harder to quantify by statistics but is likely to be more advantageous overall. Bear in mind that, in many countries (including the UK), the driver remains responsible legally for being in full control of the vehicle at all times and even current autonomous vehicle prototypes rely on a human operator to override the self-driving systems. Perhaps, calling the car ‘autonomous’ is a misnomer?

Seen and Being Seen

The ‘self-driving’ car also utilises many current technologies and is contributing to their development, all which are designed to improve visibility from the driver’s seat. Today’s Head-Up Displays are being refined into Augmented Reality Windscreens, but do they create information overload and encourage the driver to only look ahead? Ironically, protecting occupants has seen car body waistlines rise, which has reduced the glazing area and made it harder for the driver to see out. If you sit in a classic car, you might notice how easy it is to view all four corners of the vehicle, compared to today’s bloated models.

Wireless internet is seen as a potential means for cars to communicate, so that they are aware of each others’ presence, even if they cannot be seen, such as when positioned on a blind junction. Technology that monitors the driver’s awareness has been a production reality for almost a decade and the latest iterations aim to reduce motorway road death tolls because, according to Daimler Benz, sleepy drivers cause more incidents on dual carriageways than those over the drink-drive limit.

Coming to the Crunch

Generally, heavier cars offer superior crash protection than lighter ones, but piling on the pounds runs contrary to today’s fuel economy and tailpipe emissions rules. While cars have been made from lighter and stronger materials, the weight reduction has been overridden by increasing bulk and more equipment being packed into ever-expanding bodyshells, all of which goes some way to explain why a Toyota Prius weighs a third of a tonne more than a 1960’s Ford Mustang. Within the past five years, significant efforts have focussed on reducing vehicle weight, without undermining passenger cell stiffness.

While cars have been made from lighter and stronger materials, the weight reduction has been overridden by increasing bulk and more equipment being packed into ever-expanding bodyshells

The Future of Car Safety

Today’s cars are made from varying grades of high-strength steel.

Apart from improved design, future advances in technology will result in lighter and stronger materials being used for mass production. Cutting-edge interior plastics, with superior impact-absorbing qualities, and higher percentages of ultra high-strength steel for bodywork construction, will be short-term advances. While experiments with new materials are always on-going, different grades of steel (as pictured above) will remain the main constituent of car bodies, at least, in the medium term.

Refining the Restraints

Air bags and seat belts are also unlikely to disappear into the scrapyard of history but future developments will see these restraints tailoring themselves to not only the age and physique of each occupant but they will also modify their deployment, according to the encountered impact. For example, a young and healthy adult will require a different type of restraint in a high-impact situation, compared to a senior citizen in a low-speed shunt. The younger adult might have a better chance of surviving a few broken ribs, caused by the seat-belt, instead of suffering a fatal injury from a head-blow, caused by bottoming out on airbag. Yet, the chest injury might be life-threatening to a pensioner, the lighter cranium of whom would be more likely to be better protected by the airbag.

Therefore, restraint systems can improve occupant survival, if pre-empting a crash were possible and the systems will not be tailored to presume that everybody has the same physique of a 75kg crash test dummy. While research continues in these areas, anticipating an impact dovetails neatly into some technologies being developed for autonomous vehicles, such as inter-vehicle communications.

Legislation is also evolving. Euro NCAP continues its sterling work in encouraging safety standards that stretch beyond a basic statutory level but calls are being made to make the tests more vigorous and introduce additional impact points, so that carmakers cannot be tempted to toughen their cars to excel in the tested areas alone. With the latest poor crash results, displayed by a new generation of low-cost quadricycles, more work is needed to ensure the safety of these vehicles, the numbers of which are growing.

With more cars populating our roads, pedestrian safety is becoming more pertinent, illustrated by the World Health Organisation attributing over one in five car-related fatalities, globally, being pedestrians. Yet, manufacturers are responding. For example, Citroen introduced the pop-up bonnet almost a decade ago and Volvo has gone a step further, with the first production pedestrian airbag in its diminutive V40.

Looking Forward

While the crash-proof, fully ‘autonomous’ car is still a far-off dream, safety is evolving continually, albeit hidden beneath the glossy paintwork of the latest models. While technological advances are progressing, to not only reduce the effects of driver error but also to provide greater protection in the event of a crash, human beings remain vital elements to car control. With this in mind, driver education and training remains as relevant for the future as it is today.

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