The latest auto safety technology could save your life - Northern Michigan's News Leader

The latest auto safety technology could save your life

Updated: Oct. 4, 2010
Technology can reduce the dangers of driving through bad weather. (©iStockphoto.com) Technology can reduce the dangers of driving through bad weather. (©iStockphoto.com)
By Matt Nauman

You drowse off during a long drive on a boring stretch of interstate. Or perhaps you're distracted, searching for a station on your satellite radio. Either way, you haven't noticed that you're drifting out of your lane and into dangerous territory.

Lucky for you, the Infiniti sport utility vehicle you're piloting notices. A new technology, called Lane Departure Warning and Prevention, alerts drivers with a beep if they unintentionally drift across a line on the pavement. Then, if a corrective action isn't taken, the system applies gentle braking on one side of the vehicle to nudge it back into the proper lane. It operates at speeds of more than 45 miles per hour.

"This isn't technology for technology's sake," says Alex Cardinali, a senior safety engineer for Nissan and Infiniti. "It's about saving lives."

Despite the slowdown in auto sales, technology continues to roll into today's cars and trucks at a rapid pace. Eight air bags and rollover-prevention systems, such as electronic stability control, are no longer state of the art. You can expect your next vehicle to play a proactive role in avoiding trouble on the road. 

On the road with fewer worries

Here's a look at some of today's high-tech safety offerings:

  • Keeping your distance The CL and S-Class models of Mercedes-Benz, feature V-12 engines and come standard with Distronic Plus, an adaptive cruise control system with two radar frequencies that sweep ahead 160 yards to maintain an appropriate, steady distance between your car and the one ahead. Unlike standard cruise that only allows drivers to set a specific speed, Distronic Plus slows down your car as the traffic ahead slows or another car pulls into your lane.

  • Braking for you The soon-to-arrive 2009 Volvo XC60 sport utility vehicle will come with City Safety, a technology that applies the brakes before an impending collision, even if a distracted driver has failed to react. Why is that important? According to Volvo's internal safety research, in half of all rear-end collisions, the driver of the following car never touches his or her brake pedal. The system works at speeds below 20 mph -- the precise slow-moving, bumper-to-bumper situations where three-fourths of such crashes occur, Volvo says. City Safety uses an advanced laser sensor to detect vehicles up to 13 feet away, and its computer calculates 50 times a second how much braking force will be needed to prevent a crash.

    Benefits are plentiful, according to Volvo. Even if a rear-end collision occurs, the damage will be lessened. This is important to you because less damage will mean cheaper repair costs and smaller hikes to your insurance premium. Preventing these sorts of collisions will also likely mean lower insurance costs for all of us.

  • Offering better vision Infiniti, the upscale division of Nissan, offers what it calls an Around View Monitor on several of its vehicles. Thanks to four cameras, a driver gets a 360-degree, overhead view of the surrounding area on a dashboard monitor. And sonar sensors in the corner beep when you're about to scrape a wheel on a curb or tap the vehicle in front or behind as you're parallel parking.

Measuring the benefits

A wide range of other automakers, including Acura, Audi, Lexus, BMW, Buick, and Cadillac, have some type of advanced safety technology. And they'll no doubt move to more affordable, mainstream models in just a few years.

David Zuby, senior vice president of vehicle research of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, applauds the current trend toward more safety systems. He points to the success of electronic stability control, which has reduced fatal rollover crashes by more than 50 percent, according to a study of accident reports by the Institute. 

"It gives vehicle manufacturers and suppliers and people in our field a lot of enthusiasm about the other crash-avoidance features," Zuby says.

The insurance industry-backed group conducts its own crash tests, evaluates accident statistics, and researches new safety technologies. It recently found great potential in two emerging technologies: forward-collision warning and lane-departure warning systems, like the one used by Infiniti.

According to Insurance Institute analysis, more than 2 million forward crashes resulting in 7,000 fatalities happen each year in the U.S. "How many we can actually prevent depends on how well these systems work," says Zuby. Accidents where a vehicle leaves its lane result in nearly half a million wrecks and 10,000 fatalities annually.

Beyond the technology itself, effectiveness can depend on how well a driver utilizes it. With a radar system, a driver can be told that a collision might be imminent with a beep, a flashing light or both. Still, with some systems, it's up to the driver to react, Zuby says. More advanced systems react on their own once a driver doesn't. 

More to come

Systems continue to evolve, Zuby notes. Automakers (and drivers) don't want cars braking in situations that don't warrant it, such as a two-lane highway where cars going in opposite directions often pass within a few feet of each other. "Three to five years from now, we'll be able to address a lot more frontal crashes," he says. 

Infiniti already offers Intelligent Cruise Control, which can be set at speeds up to 90 mph, and recently added Distance Control Assist, which helps maintain space between your car and the one in front even in the nastiest late-afternoon gridlock in cities like New York City and Los Angeles, Cardinali says. And its engineers are working on two more systems, one that prevents side collisions and a second that prevents crashes while backing up in a parking lot.

Zuby cautions that only real-world data can confirm the success of a new safety technology, and he acknowledges that a wreck that doesn't happen is difficult to track. Still, a near-future world with smarter cars and less distracted drivers holds promise for safer driving. 

Matt Nauman writes about automobiles and green technology from Silicon Valley. He is a North American Car of the Year juror.

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