Ask almost anyone who spends time behind the wheel and they'll probably tell you that they're a safe driver. Sure, there was that fender-bender a few months back and the speeding ticket years ago. But most motorists think that safety features are for other drivers, not for them.
Whether we are as skilled behind the wheel as we think, accidents do happen. Property damage, injury and death are an intrinsic, if unfortunate, part of the driving experience. And even though traffic fatalities have declined in recent years, any way you calculate it, car accidents are extremely costly.
The projected number of traffic fatalities in 2009 is almost 34,000, and car accidents cost more than $164 billion a year, according to AAA. Fortunately, better road designs, tougher driver-impairment laws and safer cars have all helped reduce the number and severity of accidents.
ADAS Stands for Safety
Of these three elements, safer cars are the most important to many car consumers. Automakers devote millions of dollars to developing and promoting safety features, which help differentiate their vehicles and can generate sales. Now that features such as seatbelts, airbags and crumple zones have become as common as cupholders, safety innovations are growing more complex. An example of this is the rapidly expanding category of safety features known as Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS).
Some ADAS features are already well-known and provide welcome convenience and safety. These include adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning and night vision. The more advanced, and sometimes controversial, ADAS features are the ones that actively help drivers avoid accidents.
Unlike seatbelts and airbags that mitigate the effects of a crash, these ADAS features act preemptively. Instead of only decreasing injury or improving your chances of survival in an accident, some ADAS features are designed to prevent an accident from happening in the first place, in some instances by taking control of the car away from the driver. These include collision avoidance systems that can automatically apply a car's brakes and lane-departure prevention to steer a vehicle back on track.
More Control for Cruise
Adaptive cruise control (ACC), which uses sensors to detect vehicles ahead and adjust a car's cruise speed accordingly, is probably the most commonly known ADAS feature. It debuted on high-end luxury vehicles and has begun to trickle down to more modestly priced cars. Automakers have also piggybacked pre-collision features onto ACC systems that are marketed under a variety of trademarks: Lexus Advanced Pre-Collision System, Mercedes Distronic Plus with PreSafe Brake, BMW Active Cruise Control with Stop & Go.
These systems typically use radar or a laser sensor to monitor vehicles ahead and adjust the host vehicle's speed. ACC systems with a pre-crash feature also warn a driver if a collision is imminent by using lights and sound, and they can also pre-charge the brakes, tighten seatbelts, close windows and the sunroof and even autonomously apply a car's brakes in an effort to avoid a collision. Like ACC, pre-crash systems have started to appear on more affordable cars, most notably the 2010 Ford Taurus. The technology is also now available from the aftermarket through companies like Mobileye.
The latest ADAS technologies also integrate diverse vehicle systems that communicate with each other. For example, on the 2011 Audi A8 that goes on sale later this year, the navigation system is linked to the ACC as well as other systems in the vehicle. So if a car ahead slows and signals that it's exiting on a freeway off-ramp, most ACC systems would sense the deceleration and slow the host car. But the GPS-assisted ACC system in the A8 could recognize that it's near an off-ramp, see the turn signal with its onboard camera, deduce that the car ahead is exiting and maintain the current speed if it's safe to do so.
ITS Coming Soon
Location-aware ACC is a good example of intelligent car technology, but it only scratches the surface of what is possible in a larger infrastructure known as the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) that are being developed by many countries, including the U.S. ITS is a collection of current and proposed technologies that would link intelligent vehicles and intelligent roadways using telecommunications and information processing technology. And if cars that think for the driver seem a bit scary, then ITS will probably make you downright paranoid.
The upside of combining smart cars with smart roads is that it would dramatically improve vehicle safety and traffic flow. Sensors and wireless networks would be installed along roadways, while vehicles would be equipped with wireless networking along with onboard sensors and control systems.
Communication would take place between the car and infrastructure network (known as vehicle-to-infrastructure integration, or VII) and between cars themselves (known as vehicle-to-vehicle, or V2V, communication). Information on road hazards, speed and locations of vehicles would be conveyed to systems onboard vehicles for a clearer picture of what's around them as well as what's waiting down the road.
There are almost no limits to the possibilities of ITS. Imagine an integrated ITS system that could switch on your lights at dusk, slow you down in fog, speed you up on an open road, automatically direct you into an HOV lane, prevent vehicles from exceeding the speed limit, route you around road congestion or construction and warn you of a stalled vehicle or ice patches in your path.
Highway to Heaven or Hell?
This may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but some of it is already online in countries like Japan, where it's easier to implement because of the size of the country and the smaller number of vehicles on the road. And some ITS technologies are already common in the U.S., such as electronic toll collection and traffic cameras that monitor the roadway, with more on the way.
Depending on your viewpoint, all of this technology is either the mother of all safety nets or a desecration of personal liberty. ADAS and ITS could save lives, but they would also take away some driver autonomy. You would be more protected against unsafe drivers, but you would have less control over your own vehicle.
For now, ITS is only a set of proposals for future technology, but ADAS is already a major focus for automakers. Volvo made its City Safety feature, which automatically applies the brakes to avoid a rear-end collision in stop-and-go urban traffic, a major part of promoting its new XC60 crossover, and the company added a similar Pedestrian Detection system to the new 2011 S60. The safety-oriented Swedish automaker has also stated a goal of producing an "injury-proof" car by 2020.
Legal issues regarding privacy and personal responsibility will have to be sorted out, of course. For starters, would "safe" cars make drivers feel invincible and cause them to become more complacent, leading to more (but perhaps more survivable) accidents? And when accidents occur, will lawyers argue that their client didn't run over that baby carriage, but rather that it's the car's fault?
While it's in everyone's interest to put crash-test dummies out of work, achieving that goal will mean careful evolution of ADAS technology and perhaps even occasional unwillingness to adopt some of its features. But one thing is certain: The line between being a driver and being a passenger has begun to blur.
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