In the mid-1950s, Ford Motor (F), newly public and led by founder Henry Ford's grandson, decided to boost its sales -- and show rivals its taillights -- through ads emphasizing safety. The American economy was still riding the postwar wave of prosperity, so Henry Ford II figured that safety technologies were just the thing to captivate buyers' imaginations.
How wrong he was. The public snickered at safety features like seatbelts, and for good reason. In 1956, 26 of the 39 seatbelts on the market failed Consumer Reports' durability test, coming apart at critical moments. Instead of helping, Ford's safety message hurt sales. Consumers laughed that "Ford sold safety while Chevy sold cars." Indeed, over the years, all auto makers have learned that, for Americans, safety features take a back seat to speed, sporty designs, and leather interiors.
Until now. Safety is finally getting into the driver's seat. Baby boomers, representing 37% of car buyers, are forcing carmakers to reevaluate their years-old notions. Worried about their health and longevity, boomers see safety as their No. 1 priority when purchasing family cars such as sedans, SUVs, and minivans, says automotive analyst John Wolkonowicz of consultancy Global Insight.
INSURERS PUSH HARD. That opens a huge market opportunity, and one that Ford is already capitalizing on by heavily promoting safety features in its Volvos. This time around, the timing of the safety message couldn't be better.
Other auto makers are moving along with Ford, as pressure from the insurance industry and federal regulators mounts. A rule recently proposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) could make side air bags -- a common feature in European cars for years -- standard in the U.S. by 2010. That could save 700 to 1,000 lives a year, according to the NHTSA.
Insurance companies, which pay for nearly 45,000 deaths from car accidents occurring in the U.S. each year, are pushing for safer vehicles, too. In 1995, the country's largest insurers, including the auto division of American International Group (AIG) and Farmers Insurance Group of Companies, created their own crash-testing center, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Its tests are typically more rigorous than those of the government, and its ratings are well-followed by consumers. Nowadays, the IIHS is saying loud and clear that, in side collisions, 30% of the cars it tests won't save their owners from a serious or fatal injury.
"REFUSE TO CRASH." Cornered from all angles, auto makers are about to embark on one of their biggest safety pushes to date. In the next few years, they'll unveil a slew of new technologies that will make gadget lovers think it's Christmas in Motown. The idea is to drive down the number of car fatalities, which has remained stubbornly constant over the years. The industry's "ultimate goal is to make cars that refuse to crash," says Deepam Mishra, director of automotive business at technology developer Sarnoff in Princeton, N.J.
This fall, Nissan (NSANY) will introduce the first lane-departure warning system (LDWS) in a car sold in the U.S. To be installed in 2005 Infiniti models, the system will warn the driver that his car is about to swerve out of its lane -- a potentially important advance since swerving leads to half of fatal crashes each year. At the heart of the LDWS is a camera installed on the front of the rear-view mirror that monitors lane markings ahead of the car. When the car, moving at more than 45 miles per hour, approaches a lane marking (and the driver hasn't turned on a turn signal), the system starts beeping and flashing a special icon on the dashboard, showing a car between two lanes.
To prevent front and side collisions, Sarnoff has developed a special vision system, which could appear in cars as early as 2008. Tiny cameras positioned in the front and sides of the car watch the road for obstructions, pedestrians, stopped vehicles, and the like. All these images feed into special software, which can distinguish between, say, a shopping bag flying across the road and a truck rushing toward the car.
In case of danger, the system would issue a series of beeps to warn the driver to brake quickly, while also preparing the car for a collision -- it might deploy the air bags, slide the driver's seat into its safest position, and tighten the seatbelts.
LEAVE THE DRIVING TO... The world's largest carmaker, General Motors (GM), is taking this idea a step further: An intelligent mapping system, located in the car's trunk, will attempt to predict where exactly the car will go next. Then, it will check to see whether the obstacles detected by its sensors are in the way or are nothing to worry about. "We're just entering this area of technology as an industry," says Raymond Kiefer, program manager at GM Safety Center in Warren, Mich.
Automatic anti-crash equipment could prove even more effective in thwarting accidents. When warned, some drivers might panic and make the situation worse. Not so with automatic systems. In case of an imminent rollover, for example, a system developed by components maker Delphi (DPH) would apply pressure to the wheel of a car or brake at one of its corners to prevent a rollover. Left to their own devices, drivers might only cause the vehicle to overturn faster, say experts.
And when accidents are unavoidable, automated technologies can also reduce their impact and damage. Today, a system from auto-parts supplier TRW Automotive (TRW) determines whether a passenger is a child or an adult by measuring the passenger's weight through the seat. A special electronic control then uses this assessment to figure out how to deploy air bags. To avoid injuring a child, the system might only partly inflate the air bag. However, such systems can mistake a pile of books for an infant, and they wouldn't know if a passenger happens to be leaning forward the moment air bags inflate.
WAKE UP! TRW's solution, which could be available as early as 2007, is to watch passengers through a camera attached to rear-view mirror. By measuring the shape of a passenger's head and body type, the system can figure out the person's size more precisely. It also can determine her exact position just before a crash.
"Armed with that information, the system might make a different decision [than the existing system] about what to do," says Doug Campbell, an engineering vice-president at TRW. In the future, it might also detect a child forgotten in a locked, hot car, and roll down the windows or call the parent's cell phone. Or it could notice that the driver is nodding off and turn on the radio.
These wonders will be nothing compared with the changes in the technology of roads. Two months ago, Ford outfitted an 11-mile stretch of highway near Saint Paul, Minn., with high-tech cameras and antennas, monitoring the road and collecting information from about 100 specially equipped cars. Every mile, sensors on these cars wirelessly beam their speed, as well as information on road conditions, to the antennas, which pass it on to the local traffic-management center.
The center can use the data to notify drivers, via digital road signs, of an icy patch on the road ahead. Or it could dispatch salt-spreading trucks to the exact spot of the highway where cars are slip-sliding, says Ron Miller, technical leader in vehicle design and advanced engineering at Ford.
"REAL BENEFITS." Next year, the auto maker plans to advance this idea by allowing cars to not only send but receive information. A truck rolling into an intersection might warn a car that's not slowing down that it could be driving into trouble. A traffic signal might notify a car speeding toward a yellow light that it can't make it through.
How successful these technologies will be at preventing accidents remains to be seen. But researchers are hopeful. "The reason we're doing something as crazy as this is that we think there are real benefits," says Steven Underwood, a research scientist at industry researcher Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., which is planning similar trials in that state within a year.
Of course, the question is whether these benefits will outweigh concerns, such as those about privacy. When such highways are implemented years from now, experts say the data they collect will likely be anonymous and not linked to a particular license plate or driver.
LONG WAY TO GO. These technologies have also yet to be proven effective and reliable. And to become widespread beyond high-end models, many of the new automotive technologies have to come down in price. A typical night-vision system costing $2,000 today needs to fall to below $500, says analyst Phil Gott of Global Insight. That and wide user acceptance of many of these systems is unlikely to happen until 2010, he says.
Finally, no technology can thwart drunk or unwise drivers, says Richard Bishop, head of automotive consultancy Bishop Consulting in Granite, Md. That's why researchers say a car ideally would simply drive itself, while its occupants brush their teeth, read the paper, and swallow their morning coffee and doughnut. Although automated shuttle buses are in use in Japan, a self-driving car is decades away. In a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency competition conducted this spring, 15 different robots were supposed to travel autonomously for 142 miles. First place went to the machine that traveled the farthest: a measly seven miles.
So drivers, good and bad, will remain behind the wheel for a while. However, some of the new safety technologies coming down the pike will lend more than a guiding hand. By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.