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Watch out! Your car can now avoid a crash

After working for decades to reduce deaths and injuries from automobile accidents using safety belts and air bags, car makers and their suppliers are increasingly shifting their focus to crash prevention. By Roland Jones
The 2007 Mercedes S-Class, which goes on sale in 2006, includes a radar-guided technology that senses when a car might crash.PRNewsFoto

Picture the scene: A car on a highway senses it’s closing quickly on a vehicle ahead. It calculates there’s a chance of an accident and warns the driver, quickly preparing the vehicle and its passengers for an impending crash, tightening seat belts, closing the sunroof and applying the brakes. A dangerous accident is averted and car and passengers escape the collision relatively unscathed.

It may sound like a scene from a science fiction movie, but this futuristic auto safety system is a soon-to-be science fact.

The top-of-the-line 2007 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, which goes on sale early in 2006, includes a radar-guided pre-crash technology that senses when a car might crash and takes evasive action. Another car company offering a sophisticated pre-crash system is luxury car maker Lexus — the Acura RL, for example, includes the Collision Mitigation Braking System in the 2006 model year, which helps prepare the car and its passengers for impact when sensors detect a possible crash.

After working for decades to reduce deaths and injuries from automobile accidents using safety belts and air bags, car makers and their suppliers are increasingly shifting their focus to crash prevention. Other technologies now appearing in cars include lane departure warning systems, stability and anti-skid controls and anti-rollover systems.

“Car safety technology is moving from being a reactive technology to being more proactive,” said Lee Callaway, head of business development and marketing for MotoDrive, Motorola’s car technology group. “These days vehicles have air bags and anti-skid mechanisms, and although these things help you when you’re in a bad situation, we want to keep the bad situation from happening in the first place.”

Motorola recently teamed with Michigan’s Department of Transportation to build and test a roadside network that can reduce traffic accidents and road congestion through vehicle-to-vehicle wireless communication systems that alert drivers to potential collisions, upcoming road works, bad weather or congestion. The partnership is part of the U.S. government's Vehicle Infrastructure Integration initiative, which is looking into the feasibility of deploying a communications system to improve the safety and efficiency of the nation's road system.

Over the last five years, the number of fatalities on U.S. roads from automobile accidents has held relatively steady at about 40,000 each year Callaway said, citing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures. And these deaths continue to have a staggering impact on the U.S. economy, costing some $230 billion a year, or about $820 per person according to the NHTSA.

“If you factor in congestion caused by accidents, it’s an extra $78 billion on top, so something has to change,” Callaway said. “When it comes to seatbelts and airbags we have reached a point of diminishing returns — that’s why the government is working on this epidemic.”

Companies want to manage their risk too. Bryan Calloway, head of business development at LeasePlan USA — which leases fleets of cars to companies like McDonald’s and Altria — says his customers are keen to reduce the risk of injury to their drivers.

The thinking is accident reduction saves money, and so companies are asking for the latest safety technologies, including OnStar global positioning and emergency assistance systems. They are also remotely monitoring and managing their employees’ driving habits.

“The average accident costs a company $16,500 and we have seen that on average, 20 percent of a commercial fleet of cars will get into an accident in a given year, and that could range from a fatality to running over a mailbox,” Calloway said. “And so what we have seen is through managing risk profiles we can reduce that by five to 10 percent by isolating the risky drivers; the ones most likely to be in that 20 percent.”

Certainly, safety is a big trend for the 2006 car model year, and new-vehicle buyers are asking for the latest applications, such as side-impact airbags, according to a new report by market research firm J.D. Power and Associates.

The report — which polled over 115,000 recent car consumers in the winter of 2004 and early summer of 2005 — found side impact airbags have the highest market penetration at 46 percent and also the highest desirability among consumers at 82 percent. The report also shows demand is high for other emerging safety-related features, including stability control, electronic traction control and run-flat tires.

“Although demand is high for safety-related features, the gap between consumers who have such features and those who desire them is still very large,” said Neal Oddes, director of product research at J.D. Power. The gap represents an opportunity for car manufacturers, Oddes adds, and car manufactures have been listening, he says, driving more safety features into their vehicles.

“Over the last five years or so we’ve seen safety has been the most desired among car consumers,” Oddes said. “But given the opportunity gap, there’s still room for improvement.”

Advanced airbag technology is growing in importance, especially for minivans — a class of vehicle popular with families. High-tech side curtain airbags, which provide head and neck protection for passengers in the front or rear seat of a car, in particular were cited in recent crash ratings for minivans.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s first tests of how well minivans hold up in side impact crashes gave poor marks to the 2006 Ford Freestar and Mazda MPV models, which do not include the airbags as standard features. However, rival vehicles like the Toyota Sienna, Nissan Quest and Honda Odyssey, each with standard side airbags, received the highest ratings possible.

But high-tech safety is no longer the preserve of luxury cars — sophisticated protection devices can be found in many reasonably-priced cars, experts say. The mid-size 2006 Hyundai Sonata, for example, includes safety features normally found in a more expensive car, notes Tom Appel, editor of Consumer Guide Automotive, an online resource for car buyers.

“It’s a nice example of affordable safety,” Appel said. “It can be had for $18,000 and includes front- and side-impact airbags, anti-lock brakes and an anti-skid system. So it’s clear that vehicle safety is not just the purview of luxury vehicles any more.”

Most car buyers will likely have to wait longer for the more innovative car safety gizmos. These include a futuristic technology in development at big car companies like DaimlerChrysler and Toyota that lets cars drive themselves using radar to keep them out of the paths of other vehicles.

“We are really on the cusp of a very remarkable era in terms of automotive safety,” said Phil Lienert, associate editor, an Internet-based resource for consumer automotive information. “Whereas previously safety technology was passive and minimized the extent of the injuries to a passenger, now we’re starting to see more active safety technologies and the ultimate goal of these systems is to completely reduce the possibility of a crash.”

Car lights are getting an upgrade too, as car builders include bright LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, in the forward, brake, position and turn signal lights.

LED lights have been found in car cockpits for some time; they are used to illuminate control functions and placed in locations where constantly replacing a regular bulb would be laborious and expensive. Now they are slowly making their way into cars' exterior lights and they are starting to replace more common xenon and halogen bulbs, and while a widespread adoption of this new light technology has yet to be fully embraced, the benefits of it are plentiful experts say.

LEDs are more compact, durable and energy-efficient than regular incandescent light bulbs, and they last much longer notes Fred Schubert, an engineer at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., an academic center for lighting research.

“A regular light bulb only lasts about 500 hours running continuously, but a LED can last 10,000 hours, or as much as 100,000 hours, so that is much longer in terms of longevity, and when you think about it that’s pretty much as long as a car lasts,” Schubert said.

LEDs are new arrivals in car tail lamps and rear-window brake lights, but increasingly, innovative car designers and engineers are turning to clusters of LEDs to do the job of conventional forward lights, or headlights. To date these solid-state headlights have mostly been found in futuristic concept cars at auto shows, but many of them are moving toward production and are expected to arrive in car showrooms within a few years.

“When the first LEDs were made they were expensive and their light output was much less than it is today, but over the last few years the power of a single LED element has increased enough so that it’s more suitable for use in applications that are more demanding, such as a fog lamp, or a headlight,” said Michael Flannagan, a research associate professor at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute.

Experts like Flannagan note that LED forward lighting in cars can bring important safety benefits to drivers. A significant advantage of the technology is it has a higher switching speed than a standard bulb. This means that, while it takes a few hundred milliseconds for a bulb to light up after a brake pedal is pressed, a LED responds almost immediately once a current is flowing. This time margin may offer a vital safety advantage to a driver.