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Automakers turn to safety to sell cars

Motorists are demanding safer cars, and that means ever more advanced technology designed not just to make it easier to survive a crash but to prevent an accident in the first place.
Edward DeSmet, left, and Srini Sundararajan adjust a crash dummy with an inflatable seat belt at Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich. The technology will begin appearing on Ford’s next-generation Explorer SUV when it launches in mid-2010.Paul Sancya / AP
/ Source: contributor

“Safety doesn’t sell,” or so went the conventional wisdom of the auto industry. But don’t try telling that to Ford Motor Co.’s Sue Cischke, who thinks it may be a more important marketing tool than just about anything — including fuel economy.

Cischke, the Detroit automaker’s “safety czar,” was on hand last week for the rollout of the automaker’s latest technological wizardry, which combines the advantages of both a seat belt and an airbag. Dubbed the inflatable belt, it will begin appearing on Ford’s next-generation Explorer SUV when it launches in mid-2010 and eventually will roll out “globally,” said Cischke.

She suggested the inflatable seat belt system will not only enhance the safety of both young and elderly back-seat passengers — who tend to have disproportionate rates of accident injuries — but also give Ford a distinct marketing advantage.

The Ford executive isn’t alone. Motorists are demanding safer cars, and that means ever more advanced technology designed not just to make it easier to survive a crash but to prevent an accident in the first place, said Samir Salman, CEO of Continental Corp., the U.S. subsidiary of the giant German automotive supplier.

Automobiles, he noted, have come a long way since the first rudimentary safety systems —starting with the basic lap belt — became mandatory in the U.S., back in the 1960s. The basic structures of today’s cars, trucks and crossover vehicles are designed to absorb crash forces, effectively cocooning passengers. The most advanced vehicles are outfitted with an assortment of active safety systems designed to prevent crashes and passive devices, like airbags, to reduce injuries if an accident does occur.

The payoff is clear. In 2008, about 37,000 Americans were killed in highway accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, down from more than 43,000 in 2005. This year the total is projected to drop to about 35,000, “and we haven’t even started with technology," Salman said.

Continental and its German rival, Bosch, helped usher in a major change in the approach to safety 20 years ago, with the launch of the first active safety technology: anti-lock brake systems, or ABS. Simple by today’s standards, the technology measured wheel spin to prevent skids and allow a motorist to steer around obstacles, even on icy roads.

ABS begat traction control, which made it easier to get a grip when starting up on slippery roads. That, in turn, led to stability control, which uses a vehicle’s brakes and computer throttle controller to avoid skidding on slippery roads.

There are now all sorts of variants, like VDIM, offered on Lexus products, which can also control steering and even the firmness of the vehicle’s shock absorbers, to help maintain stability in aggressive maneuvers.

And yet another revolution is getting under way, as the newest “smart” cars begin to get a glimpse of the world around them.

The Mercedes-Benz S-Class, for one, uses a high-frequency radar transceiver to scan the road ahead for potential obstacles, which could be a tree, a deer or another car. The signal is used by several tightly integrated systems. One, generically known as Active Cruise Control, allows the driver to set a desired speed, but if traffic slows, it will reduce speed and maintain a safe distance automatically. The big sedan will even come to a brief stop if traffic halts.

Video technology is also coming onboard. Rearview monitors are becoming nearly ubiquitous, especially on minivans, SUVs and other big vehicles with large blind spots. Infiniti is one of several makers that use miniature cameras to make sure a vehicle isn’t drifting from lane to lane. In Europe, the latest BMW 7-Series sedan can spot traffic signs, such as speed limit warnings, alerting the driver.

From luxury to mainstream
Most advanced electronic safety technologies have launched first on luxury cars, but mainstream makers are getting more aggressive in taking the lead, especially as the price of digital technology falls sharply.

Continental has integrated what were three separate devices, controlling the airbag, chassis and stability control, into a single package a fifth of the size, “and reducing size also means reducing cost,” noted the company’s global safety chief, Ralf Cramer .

That’s good news because while motorists are demanding ever-better safety devices, research says they want to pay little to nothing extra for such systems.

Volvo is making its new “City Safe” system standard on some models. The technology is meant to bring a car to a quick stop if a distracted driver misses a potential collision. Ford, meanwhile, is using a new, lower-cost radar unit to help drivers of the 2010 Taurus spot oncoming traffic when they back out of a space, say, in a busy shopping center parking lot.

Think of the evolution of safety systems “as a continuum,” said Ford’s Cischke. “The first step is to warn the driver of a potential accident, then to take steps to prevent it.” If all else fails, “you want to reduce the likelihood of injuries or fatalities.”

What’s next? Some contend the ultimate goal is to create an autonomous vehicle, one that takes over the driving completely. The European Union has just launched a program, dubbed Project SARTRE, which will allow specially equipped test vehicles to convoy down the highway only a few feet off each other's bumpers. Not only should that reduce accidents, but it will increase the number of vehicles that can use a given stretch of road, proponents contend.

Not everyone is convinced the autonomous car is a good idea, never mind a do-able one. But “our vision is zero fatalities,” said Continental’s Salman. It might seem like a fantasy today, but considering the steady improvement in highway safety, a growing number of experts believe it is a real possibility, and one we could reach in the relatively near future.