In your next car accident, a circuit may be just as crucial to your survival as a safety belt. The seat belt, made mandatory by Congress in the 1960s, set off a revolutionary leap in automobile safety and dramatically reduced lives lost in crashes. Now, a second safety revolution is in the offing. The NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) has implemented a standard making electronic stability control (ESC) equipment mandatory in all vehicles, estimating that the universal adoption of this technology by 2011 will save 10,000 lives a year.
ESC, already standard on many luxury vehicles and optional on a growing number of mainstream models, is only one among a slew of new auto-safety advancements designed to prevent accidents rather than just protect occupants from them. Most of these newfangled features are microchip based and build on the increasing electronic sophistication of vehicles. Not all have reached the state engineers call “technological maturity,” meaning they work dependably and affordably but are still being perfected.
Last fall, Nicole R. Nason, the administrator of the NHTSA, told a Congressional committee that electronic technologies were poised for the first time to make as important a contribution to safety as physical measures such as seat belts and bumpers. “I believe the most promising gains in highway safety are going to come from the deployment of crash-avoidance technologies,” she said. “Today the technology exists not only to ameliorate the severity of a crash, but to help prevent it outright.” Among these technologies, Nason listed forward-collision warning systems, lane-departure warning and blind-spot warning devices. “But the crash-avoidance technology that holds the greatest promise is electronic stability control,” she said.
For all such new ideas, there has been a typical route: invention, adoption and legislation. Increasingly, new auto-safety features will not be thought of as individual options and gadgets but as part of a common set of ears and eyes linked by a brain — or at least the automotive equivalent of the office’s local area network.
The features are already being sold this way. Instead of picking individual gadgets, buyers will generally find it easier to choose full safety options packages. Lexus, for instance, is emphasizing the way its safety features work as part of a common system by marketing its smart cruise control, lane-departure warning and ESC technologies into a single package called Lexus Vehicle Dynamic Integrated Management.
The integration of such systems and the ceding of brake, throttle and — eventually — steering control all raise major questions for drivers and car companies: How much help do drivers want or need at the wheel? Who is in charge?
Ford refers to its high-tech safety systems as “co-drivers”; other companies call them “assistants.” Mercedes-Benz says that in its vehicles, technology will never take control out of the hands of the human driver. The company adheres to a systematic design, always offering sight and sound warnings in sequence before computerized controls take emergency action.
As people spend more time in the car with mobile phones and cups of coffee in one hand, we run the risk of undoing the highest technology improvements with the lowest of human failings — simple distraction.
Click on the “slide show” link above to see a guide to the basics of some of the latest developments, beginning with ESC. The first six are preventative measures; the latter four are designed to reduce/mitigate injuries resulting from accidents.