It's 3 a.m., and a driver cruising down the autobahn at 80 mph (130 km per hour) is feeling drowsy. Suddenly, the rear of an 18-wheeler looms so close it fills his entire windshield. Sounds like a deadly accident in the making, but it doesn't have to be. Engineers at DaimlerChrysler's (DCX ) research facility in Stuttgart are testing a safety system to enable occupants to survive even the worst crash. Electronic sensors installed throughout the vehicle measure the speed and proximity of obstacles ahead and trigger a chain-reaction once a collision seems unavoidable. They instantly activate the brakes, close the windows and sunroof to bolster the car's resistance, and pull reclining seats upright so that passengers are in the proper position to be buffered by airbags. "Ideally the occupants emerge without injury," says Rodolfo Schoneburg, head of car safety development at DaimlerChrysler.
After packing cars with phones, navigation systems, and other gadgets that distract drivers, European carmakers are seizing on safety as the next big thing. Seat belts and airbags save thousands of lives a year in Europe and the U.S. Now advances in electronics are opening a whole new frontier in safety systems. Daimler's engineers are working on "intelligent cars" that can take over the steering or braking functions if sensors detect erratic driving patterns or too much alcohol on the driver's breath. Such innovations not only showcase the manufacturer's technical prowess, they're also designed to boost brand prestige and customer loyalty. "It's the biggest growth area in the European car industry now," says Wolfgang Ziebart, head of braking and safety systems at Hannover-based tiremaker Continental.
Daimler hopes to introduce its "pre-safe" system within a year in its top-end $70,000-plus S-Class sedan. Meanwhile, the company's truck division has developed an early-warning system, offered as a $1,400 option on its $110,000 Actros trucks, that sets off a rumbling alarm to jog the driver if the truck strays from the lane. "Our goal in the next 15 years is to halve the number of collisions involving cars with our safety systems," says Klaus-Dieter Vohringer, head of DaimlerChrysler's research and technology division.
Racing Daimler to the market is Volvo Car Corp. (VOLVY ), whose name is nearly synonymous with safety. The biggest brand in Ford Motor Co.'s (F ) Premier Automotive Group, the Swedish carmaker unveiled its Safety Concept Car last year. It features a collision warning system, a night-vision screen on the dashboard that shows animals or other objects beyond the range of the headlights, and seat belts that keep passengers more secure by crisscrossing at the chest. Volvo CEO Hans-Olov Olsson notes car buyers are seeking more reassurance, notably since September 11: "People are becoming more cautious," he says. Next year, some Volvos will feature a system that not only sounds a warning when a vehicle strays from its lane but gently redirects the steering.
Americans want safety, but auto makers have a tough time getting them to pay for the high-tech systems. General Motors Corp. (GM ) recently made side-curtain airbags and antilock brakes--at one time standard features--optional for some of its base models. "The European manufacturers are competing on performance and safety," says Patrick Jarboe, U.S. market-ing director for Swedish-based automotive supplier Autoliv Inc. "Here, the competition is more on cost."
That's not to say Detroit is ignoring safety innovations. In a joint project with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chrysler has developed a highly sophisticated monitoring system in its 300M IT-Edition test car. It even tracks the driver's eye movements, checking for signs of drowsiness that would set off an alarm. Based on studies showing that more than 80% of accidents can be prevented if the driver is warned one second beforehand, the system filters out distractions. If the driver is changing lanes on a busy road, and a call comes in on the car phone, the system suppresses the ring briefly and puts the caller on hold. Yet Chrysler has no plan to put such a system on the market. Only 30% of Chrysler's customers now opt for anti-lock brakes, which are standard equipment in Volkswagen cars.
Sophisticated safety systems don't come cheap. Volvo spends more than half of its $800 million-a-year research budget on safety. Middle-market European auto makers are also shelling out for safety systems. Europe's biggest auto maker, Volkswagen (VLKAY ), was the first mass-market manufacturer to begin equipping most of its VW-brand models with electronic stability systems. Priced as a $380 option on VW's smallest cars, these systems detect when a car starts to skid and keep it from spinning out of control. Meanwhile, France's Renault is outfitting its new Megane compact with a system that tightens seat belts and supports the occupants' legs to keep them from sliding in a collision. "You can't have a strong brand image unless you offer top-quality safety," says Carlos Tavares, head of Renault's compact car development.
Skeptics suspect that the new focus on safety contains a big dose of marketing hype. Insurers aren't offering discounts for vehicles equipped with these electronics-based systems. But auto industry officials counter that the statistics suggest the new features may be saving lives. Although there are no speed limits on many stretches of the autobahn, the fatality rate from road accidents in Germany continues to decline while it has leveled off in the U.S.
European carmakers are so hooked on safety that they're trying to protect the biggest daredevils of all--motorcyclists. BMW's C1 scooter, launched in 2000 and built by Italy's Gruppo Bertone, has a protective bubble rising from the windscreen and curving above the driver, who is strapped securely to the back by crossbelts, so as not to hit the ground in an accident. It's safe enough that most European authorities don't require C1 drivers to wear helmets, and its cool lines appeal to hip city-dwellers. Sales of the C1 rose 16% in the first quarter of 2002, to 1,515 units. Trust Europeans to make safety stylish.
By Christine Tierney in Stockholm, with David Welch in Detroit