The perpetual quest to reduce deaths and injuries on the roads is heading in a new direction.

For decades, the focus has been on safety improvements inside the car in the form of devices such as seat belts, airbags and headrests. But with the help of new technology, the emphasis is now shifting outside the vehicle.

Preventing crashes “is where we’re heading in terms of vehicle safety”, says Matt Roney, vice-president for product planning and business development at Michigan-based TRW, a safety equipment supplier.

David Strickland, head of the US National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), underlined the point in a recent speech: “Crash avoidance projects and programmes are a priority because they provide the first opportunity to save lives and reduce injuries by preventing crashes from occurring in the first place”.

Much of the pressure is coming from insurance companies that are increasingly willing to lower premiums for vehicles equipped with collision-avoidance systems.

Santosh Anishetty, head of North American passive safety and advanced driver assistance systems at Germany’s Continental, said the insurance industry “drives progress a lot better than any carmaker or supplier trying to drive it in the marketplace”.

Further impetus has come from Toyota’s much publicised problems over the past two years with unintended acceleration.

Although investigations have so far ruled out some of the most serious accusations against the company, the public outcry, especially among US politicians, has pushed collision avoidance up the regulatory – and thus the industry – agenda.

Priority is being given to three areas: lane departure warning systems, crash-imminent braking, and electronic stability controls, helping prevent rollovers.

Mr Anishetty expects the NHTSA to produce draft regulations on lane-departure and pre-collision braking systems by early next year.

The quest to prevent collisions has benefited from big advances in radar, laser and camera technology – and, in some cases, a combination of all three.

Continental has developed laser technology sensors able to track the movements of a vehicle up to 10 metres ahead at city driving speeds. If the gap between the two vehicles closes suddenly, the system can warn the driver of the rear vehicle and, if necessary, automatically apply the brakes.

Continental will unveil an advanced version of these systems at the Frankfurt motor show, based on a stereo camera mounted behind the windscreen that can provide two distinct fields of view to detect pedestrians and crossing traffic.

Norbert Hammerschmidt, Continental’s director of customer programmes for advanced driver assistance systems, compares the technology to “two eyes and behind them the brain to make the calculations”.

TRW is working on a radar-based system that will sense an imminent side collision. Airbags will be inflated immediately when crash sensors on the side of the car detect the impact, reducing by a fraction of a second the time needed to confirm a collision has taken place. “What used to take 12 milliseconds becomes four milliseconds”, says Mr Roney, noting that the eight-millisecond head-start could be enough to save a life. He is confident such systems will become reality within the next couple of years.

Advances in camera technology have spawned numerous improvements in vehicle safety. For example, some models are now fitted with systems that automatically dim headlights when a camera detects the taillights of vehicles ahead or the headlights of oncoming vehicles.

Looking seven to 10 years ahead, Continental’s Mr Anishetty foresees vehicle-to-vehicle systems that would give drivers longer advance warning of potential collisions. Traffic lights and other roadside infrastructure could be equipped with devices that communicate directly with vehicles.

As a result of last year’s furore over unintended acceleration, the NHTSA will soon require all cars to be fitted with devices that give the brake priority over the accelerator. Moves are under way to require event data recorders – a simplified version of aircraft “black boxes” – in all passenger vehicles.

The agency is also starting research on the placement and design of accelerator and brake pedals. Many cases of unintended acceleration have been traced to driver error rather than mechanical defects.

But these innovations come at a cost. For now, advanced sensor and camera systems are mostly confined to high-end models. Mr Hammerschmidt says one of the challenges facing carmakers and suppliers is to bring down prices and make the technology available to the mass market.

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