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Technology Could Usher In a New Age of Ultra-Safe Cars

New vehicles are expanding the use of high-strength steel and other materials which, along with new designs, absorb much of the energy of a crash.

As part of a unique industry-government consortium, American motorists will soon find virtually every car, truck and crossover on the market equipped with a breakthrough safety system called Automatic Emergency Braking.

But that’s likely to be only the start. The same group of 20 automakers, along with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, plans to push even more advanced safety technology into tomorrow’s cars faster than would normally be possible under the slow and cumbersome regulatory process.

Experts say such moves — which will help lead up to an era of fully autonomous vehicles — could yield huge benefits in terms of lives saved, as well property damage prevented.

Autonomous Emergency Braking, or AEB, alone has been shown to reduce the number of rear-end collisions by as much as 40 percent, according to a recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind earlier this year suggested it may be possible to bring the total number of U.S. highway fatalities — which topped 32,000 in 2014 — down to zero in the not-too-distant future.

Read More: Why Are More Americans Dying on the Highway?

To get there, automotive manufacturers and suppliers are taking a two-pronged approach, starting with improvements in passive safety — systems like seat belts and airbags designed to keep occupants safe in a crash. The latest vehicles are expanding the use of high-strength steel, carbon fiber and other materials which, along with new designs, absorb much of the energy of a crash before it reaches the passenger compartment.

But the biggest breakthroughs are expected in the field of active safety. These are systems, like AEB, which can help a driver avoid a crash in the first place. This is a relatively new field, one that really only began in the late 1990s with the debut of anti-lock brake systems, or ABS. Today, every vehicle sold in the U.S. might have more advanced electronic stability control and, by 2022, automakers building 99 percent of the cars sold in the States have agreed to add AEB.

That technology uses a mix of laser and radar sensors, as well as artificial vision, to scan the road ahead. If an obstacle is spotted, the system sounds an alert and then, if the driver fails to respond, the brakes are automatically applied.

Read More: 'Zero Fatalities' on the Highways Coming in Our Lifetime?

Basic systems look solely for other vehicles, but more advanced versions of emergency braking will be able to spot bicyclists, pedestrians, even animals crossing a vehicle’s path.

The good news is that the sensors used for AEB can be programmed to contribute to other safety technologies such as Lane Departure Warning, which sounds an alert if a car drifts out of its lane, and the more advanced Lane Keep Assist, which will nudge the car back into its lane.

The next big breakthrough is likely to link these various systems together, suggests Andrew Whydell, Director of Product Planning for Vehicle Systems, at safety supplier ZF TRW. Consider a situation where a pedestrian steps into the street and AEB doesn’t have enough time to brake. Emergency evasive steering “will give the vehicle the ability to change lanes automatically if it is safe to do so,” swerving away from a collision without driver input.

“The basic building blocks are already in the vehicle,” adds Aine Denari, another ZF TRW vice president.

Those sensors already are being used in Europe to read highway speed signs and could soon respond if a driver inadvertently starts to run a red light.

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Tomorrow’s cars will get additional hardware, as well. The new Cadillac CT6 sedan will feature an infrared vision system that can spot obstacles, especially animals and pedestrians, in near black-out conditions. It highlights “targets” on a screen in the middle of the instrument cluster much the way enemy aircraft are targeted in a fighter jet.

On-board sensors won’t be able to detect all emergencies, which is why the Obama administration is seeking $5 billion from the 2017 fiscal budget to fund the first phase in what will eventually become a nationwide vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure, or V2V and V2I, network.

A car running a light might issue a warning to all nearby vehicles. Connected car networks would also advise motorists about weather problems, traffic jams, construction and other potential problems ahead.

The first car to use semi-autonomous technology, the Tesla Model S, is now capable of driving hands-free on limited-access highways. Nissan has already promised to put its first, fully active model into production by 2020, with several competitors on a similar timetable.

Volvo and Nissan have already laid out plans — in sync with the target laid out by NHTSA — to get to zero fatalities in their vehicles. Is that realistic?

“Zero is highly unlikely,” cautions Jeremy Carlson, a senior analyst with IHS Automotive, “but we can eliminate the vast majority of [fatalities], probably taking it down to single digits.”

Sometimes, he adds, “the unthinkable happens, no matter how hard you plan for it. But we have incredible gains to reap from the technology coming into the vehicle.”