Car tech: Building the zero-fatality car

An automobile that's so safe, nobody will die in it? New technologies are bringing us ever closer to that goal.

1 2 3 4 5 Page 3
Page 3 of 5

David Pulaski, an analyst at market research firm Harris Interactive, related a story about a recent real-world incident for a carmaker he did not name: A thin and light woman was sitting in the back seat of a car involved in an accident, but the car did not deploy an airbag because it was designed to sense a heavier weight and larger size.

If the designers had used more environmental and passenger variables in simulations testing the airbag system, the car could have sensed the woman and deployed the airbag appropriately. This points to a need to expand simulation testing to include more scenarios, which will require even more processing power.

Another major limitation to crash simulations is cost, says Pulaski. Every car company could pour millions of dollars into materials research or virtual human tissue for crash dummies, but consumers would balk at the higher prices car companies would need to charge to offset the costs.

Most of us have accepted the reality that driving cars will sometimes cause fatal injuries. Pulaski says there needs to be another incentive -- just as car companies finally started addressing fuel consumption problems when the cost of oil escalated beyond the stratosphere.

Vehicle communication networks

Vehicle-to-vehicle communication is another important step on the road to the zero-fatality car. The more a vehicle knows about other cars (and the roadway), the better it can react and avoid a danger.

Telematics services such as GM's OnStar and Mercedes' mbrace today use CDMA cellular and GPS signals to communicate vehicle status, including automatic collision notification, to a central location and provide other services such as roadside assistance and remote door lock or unlock. It's easy to see how these services could be expanded to allow vehicles to communicate with one another, although neither company has announced specific plans to do so.

Mike Shulman, technical leader for advanced engineering at Ford Motor Co., says his company is moving from passive safety features that protect passengers during a crash to active safety features that can prevent crashes altogether. This means the car will still be made from safe materials and provide airbags and other protections, but it will also actively search for dangers, partly by communicating with other cars and partly by communicating with the road infrastructure, including signs, traffic lights and parking lots.

Pulaski says most automakers have shifted to the active safety approach. For example, just about every car manufacturer now has some form of stabilization control that checks for uneven tire speed and whether the car is at an angle, and keeps the vehicle level to prevent it from overturning. The next step, Pulaski says, is for this stabilization state to be communicated to other cars.

To help spur innovation, the Federal Communications Commission in 2002 approved the use of the Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) 5.9-GHz spectrum for both vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure signals. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Transportation launched the IntelliDrive research program, in which auto manufacturers, in cooperation with federal and state government agencies, are developing standards for the wireless signals and figuring out how to use them in cars. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is scheduled to review the program's recommendations in 2013 and decide whether to approve IntelliDrive technology for deployment.

Today, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety -- the noted U.S. crash-test rating authority sponsored by the insurance industry -- rates crash safety based mainly on car-to-barrier collisions. But Ford's Shulman speculates that the DSRC signals could become part of the IIHS ratings and that future cars could be rated for their ability to communicate with other cars -- a glimmer of that possible "zero fatality" rating for cars down the road.

At a low level, these signals would send out a safety state -- for example, the car's speed, the level of brake pressure the driver has applied and steering -- to every other car in the vicinity. According to Shulman, this signal would emanate 10 times per second.

Mercedes concept car sending wireless safety signals
The Mercedes-Benz ESF concept car from 2009 sends out information about slippery roads to other cars over a wireless network. In the next few years, a dedicated wireless spectrum could handle these safety transmissions. © Mercedes-Benz/Daimler AG
1 2 3 4 5 Page 3
Page 3 of 5
It’s time to break the ChatGPT habit
Shop Tech Products at Amazon