Automotive technology is changing – improving – almost as fast as we can tell you about it. Some of it increases vehicles’ “cool factor,” but much of it is making America’s streets and highways much safer. Government safety watchdogs attribute thousands of lives saved to already available technology and anticipate that many more will be saved with what’s under development. Insurance companies like that safety technology reduces damage.
Technology ranges from simple to sexy. A simple idea is inflatable shoulder belts. Ford already offers them on four models and Mercedes is including them on new S-Class sedans. A built-in bladder in the shoulder belt inflates on crash impact, preventing severe injuries sometimes caused in violent collisions by the seatbelts themselves. Another simple idea: GM’s new center-front airbag that protects drivers and front passengers in side-impact collisions.
Bridgestone is developing an airless tire that doesn’t go flat. Drivers don’t need to worry about over- or under-inflation that cause premature wear. Bridgestone’s prototype tire is filled with recyclable thermoplastic spokes instead of air. Meanwhile, Nissan has developed the Easy-Fill Tire Alert to ensure proper tire inflation. It toots the car horn when you’ve filled your tire to the correct air pressure. It debuted on the 2013 Altima.
New headlight technology offers bigger bells and whistles. In the past several years incandescent sealed beams have been replaced by halogen and xenon lights and now, brighter, more energy-efficient LEDs. Mercedes’ new S-Class has more than 375 LEDs but no standard bulbs. In Europe, Audi offers LED “matrix-beam” headlights that use cameras and sensors to direct the vehicle’s numerous LEDs – to dim, brighten, or illuminate around corners – depending on what’s ahead. So far, these advanced headlights are not legal in the U.S. because of a 1968 rule that requires simple high- and low-beam switching.
Several automakers now offer adaptive headlights that swivel and help drivers see around corners. Now researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University are developing a system that will remove the distraction of raindrops or snowflakes in the headlights that interfere with your ability to see what’s ahead. ETA on production is about five years.
Cars sensing what drivers can’t see – or sensing faster than drivers can – and acting accordingly, is a major thrust of automotive technology. One option in development is “connected vehicle technology.” It allows vehicles to detect other vehicles around corners where drivers can’t see and take evasive action.
According to government safety data, 4,000 pedestrians died and nearly 70,000 were injured in 2011 after being hit by cars. BMW’s solution is “dynamic spotlight” technology that detects pedestrians via infrared cameras that feed data into the car’s software.
Car cameras are routine already. Many mid-size and even small automobiles have back-up cameras. The government will soon mandate them. But many automakers also offer side-view and even 360o-view camera coverage. Cameras and sensors also are helping tired drivers stay awake and stay in their lanes. By 2015 engineers say we can expect car cameras that will read signs and even traffic light colors and act on the information.
Several models will alert drivers to impending collisions and some either automatically slow or stop the car before a crash happens. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, these systems are directly affecting insurance claims. The next advance is Traffic Jam Assist, already offered by Volvo, Audi, BMW and Mercedes. It automatically monitors the distance to the car in front and adjusts speed, handling braking and steering accordingly. Cadillac is close to producing a system that will manage these functions at freeway speeds.
One of the best things about accelerating technology development is that prices drop quickly, meaning that what shows up now and in the near future as expensive options on luxury cars likely will be included as standard equipment on mid-range and even entry-level models within just a few years, ultimately making the roads safer for everyone.