Air bags notwithstanding, auto safety is stuck in neutral. Compared to their huge drop between the mid-1960s and early 1990s, fatality rates have hardly changed in the last decade (see “Safety Slowdown,” below), and the raw numbers remain appalling: 42,815 people died on U.S. roads last year, 619 more than in 2001. To improve that safety record, some manufacturers plan to install more-sophisticated driver-warning systems, including radar- and video-based safety devices that sense when you veer over lane markings or too close to other cars-and warn you before it’s too late.
Unlike previous safety improvements-such as air bags or antilock brakes-which increase the car’s ability to protect drivers and passengers from accidents, these new technologies are intended to help avoid accidents in the first place, by giving drivers better information. “We’re moving into a new era,” says Vicki Neale, a human-factors engineer at Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute. Instead of mechanical systems or devices to protect the car, she says, “the next stages of improvement are going to involve the driver.”
To be sure, manufacturers have long considered such devices. Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a leading watchdog group in Washington, DC, says such technologies have been prototyped since at least the 1970s but were never implemented-partly because of cost, and partly because there has never been a federal requirement similar to the ones that forced the installation of seat belts and air bags. “Clearly, some of them could have been implemented and should have been implemented,” he says. “The industry is not likely to implement them on their own.”
But that industry posture may be changing. The costs of underlying technologies, from tiny video cameras to microchips, have plummeted. In addition to adding safety, such features could add marketing allure without adding enormous expense for automakers. In the next few years it is likely that these new safety systems, such as lane guidance devices and blind-spot warnings, will actually trickle into showrooms even without new federal requirements.
Automakers including Honda, DaimlerChrysler, Ford, General Motors, and Nissan are all developing lane guidance systems intended to help drivers steer reliably and safely. Using video cameras mounted above rear-view mirrors and linked to image-processing software, such systems calculate an auto’s relationship to its lane boundaries by tracking painted lane markings on the roadway. As drivers drift, they can be warned by means of dashboard lights, sounds, or seat vibrations. The systems are already nearing deployment; Ford, for example, plans to road-test video sensors on more than 100 vehicles in the next year.
Beyond lane tracking, some systems are designed to increase driver awareness of surrounding vehicles. Volvo says it hopes to introduce a blind-spot warning system within several years. The system starts with backward-facing video cameras mounted on side mirrors. When a driver hits the turn signal with another vehicle in close range, an alarm sounds. “If you can educate drivers about the need to be attentive, and do it by these devices, you can improve driver behavior,” says James Sayer, a research engineer at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute.