A vehicle that's so safe, nobody will die in it? New technologies are bringing us ever closer to that goal.
Collision avoidance systems
To help reduce fatalities, cars' computers will help drivers avoid crashes in the first place. Adaptive cruise control, which adjusts car speed automatically as you approach another car on the highway; blind-spot warning systems, which use cameras or sensors to detect cars moving up beside you; and lane-departure warning systems, which alert you when you drift out of your lane, are already fairly common.
Next up are collision avoidance systems that inspect environmental variables such as road conditions, lane markers and your attention level (by measuring steering wheel movements, time elapsed since you started the car, erratic behaviour and many other variables) and use advanced algorithms to determine how much you should be braking in a given situation.
Already in use in advanced vehicles such as the Acura RL, the Mercedes S550 and the Volvo S60, these systems send out a radar signal and wait for a response to determine the distance and closing speed of cars and other objects in front of the car. If a collision is likely to occur, the car first warns the driver, then automatically applies the brakes partially or fully, depending on the time to impact.
Similarly, the Volvo S60's new pedestrian detection system combines radar (to gauge the distance and trajectory of moving objects) with a camera (to determine whether they're human). If a pedestrian suddenly steps out in front of the car, the system applies the brakes automatically.
The system includes approximately 10,000 stored images of what pedestrians 'look like', according to James Hope, a technical media representative for Volvo.
"The camera compares the stored images to what it's seeing in front, along with looking for human-type movement - the arms swinging, the shoulders and head, the legs moving - to determine if it's really seeing a person or something else. The system wouldn't recognise an animal or a baby stroller, but it would recognise the person pushing the stroller," Hope says.
These collision avoidance systems require a wealth of data about multiple driving conditions, which allows the computer to factor in every possible variable when deciding upon the appropriate response. As with crash tests, computer simulations have proved key in gathering this data. Volvo tested the S60's pedestrian detection system over 500,000 km of simulated driving in a virtual world, according to Thomas Broberg, a senior technical adviser for safety at the Volvo Car Safety Center in Gothenburg, Sweden.
NEXT PAGE: More on how collisions are avoided