Safety Technology: Moving Beyond Seat Belts

Auto makers have entered a new phase of safety R&D called collision avoidance, which includes automated systems to help steer clear of trouble

From the time when Volvo put the first three-point seat belts in their cars in 1959, the overriding philosophy behind vehicle safety was to minimize human injury in the event of a collision. And seat belts have certainly earned their place as an effective technology -- more lives have been saved due to seat belts than all other safety technologies combined.

Automotive manufacturers are now well into a new phase of safety research and deployment -- known broadly as collision avoidance, this field includes technology that directly assists drivers as well as purely automated systems that direct the vehicle to act accordingly to avoid a mishap.

Night Vision

BMW is making their Night Vision system available this March in their 5 Series Sedan and Sports Wagon as well as in the 6 Series Coupe and Convertible. Using a thermal imaging camera installed in the front of the vehicle, this system enhances drivers' ability to distinguish objects while driving at night. The thermal imaging camera, based on infrared technology, can detect human beings, animals and objects in front of the car before they become visible to the human eye in the headlights. The image is then transmitted to a central display in the dash, highlighting the detected objects, and thereby making human beings and animals particularly conspicuous.

The thermal imaging camera has a range of up to 300 meters or almost 1,000 feet ahead of the car. BMW Night Vision offers the customer particular benefits when driving over land, down narrow lanes, through gateways leading into courtyards, and into dark under­ground garages, significantly enhancing driving safety at night.

Adaptive Cruise Control

Adaptive cruise control is another collision avoidance system that uses a forward facing sensor to help the driver. An extension of the standard cruise control system, adaptive cruise control uses a radar sensor to measure the distance between you and the vehicle ahead. In vehicles such as the Audi A6, adaptive cruise control will then automatically adjust the vehicle's brakes and speed to maintains the correct distance from the vehicle in front. Audi's system can automatically reduce speed by up to 25% without human assistance, if the situation is more critical an audio warning is sounded, alerting the driver to intervene.

Since most people will not be able to experience adaptive cruise control under ordinary road test conditions, let's say teh effect when it kicks in is dramatic. Even without an audio warning, the driver is aware that the car has taken some action on is own; the Audi system is so refined, it will accelerates the car back up to the speed previously set when conditions are clear.

Additonally, Audi's system has four different settings, or driving dynamics, to meet individual needs. Distance 1 (sporty), Distance 2 and 3 (standard), and Distance 4 (comfortable). The Distance 1 program maintains a short distance from the vehicle in front and accelerates swiftly back up to the journey speed set if the road ahead becomes clear.

The Distance 2 and Distance 3 programs allow the vehicle to flow along quickly with the flow of traffic. The Distance 4 program is used on country roads and when towing a trailer. Even if adaptive cruise control is activated, the driver is still responsible for monitoring his vehicle's speed and the distance from the vehicle in front. Adaptive cruise control does not react to stationary objects or approaching vehicles, and Audi cautions that it should not be used on winding roads or in adverse weather conditions such as fog, ice or heavy rain.

Volvo's "sleepy driver" system

Using a camera mounted in front of the rear-view mirror, Volvo has developed a "sleepy driver" safety alert system that monitors a vehicle's position relative to road markings, and which can alert the driver if he or she is in danger of losing control.

Volvo's system also includes a sensor, which measures vehicle movements, and a processor which ties all the information together to keep track of overall driving behavior. If the system perceives a high potential for loss of control, the driver is alerted [or woken up] by an audible signal. Volvo's Driver Alert is activated at about 40 miles per hour.

In addition, the system also relays information via the vehicle's trip computer, based on a five-star rating, that monitors consistency. Less consistent driving is indicated through an incremental loss of star ratings.

The company says their system, which is subject to a patent application, is different from Lane Departure Warning, which alerts drivers if they cross road markings. Volvo's system will step in to alert drivers of inconsistent driving before such blatant problems arise.

Volvo is still testing the system, and claims it has never failed to alert a driver that was falling asleep at the wheel. The company expects to offer Driver Alert in production vehicles within two years. Driver fatigue is estimated to be the cause of approximately 100,000 accidents annually, resulting in 1,500 fatalities and injuries in 71% of the incidents.

Lane Departure Warning

Infiniti has deployed a Lane Departure Warning [LDW] system in the M series, which alerts the driver when they stray from the straight and narrow.

The system calculates lane markings by using a small camera attached to the inside rearview mirror scopes out lane markings in front of the vehicle, keeping track of the lateral distance between the car and the lines on the road.

The system emits an audible warning when an unintended lane departure is about to or does occur -- during a test drive we found the warning was distinct enough to be understood, yet not so jarring that it would cause a jerky overreaction, or unintentionally escalate road aggravation.

The system includes a driver deactivation switch and turns off automatically when the turn signals are used. LDW is part of the series' Technology Package option that retails for $4,200.

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