Blind spotting: This wing-mirror-mounted camera is part of a system that warns when you are veering from the lane, or about to crash.
Some studies have shown that such features can reduce accidents and insurance claims. That’s a clear benefit, considering that 32,788 people were killed in vehicle crashes in 2010 in the United States alone, and that driver distraction is increasing.
The trend toward more active safety technologies is not being driven by regulatory mandates. Rather, the industry is responding to the falling costs of sensors and computers that drive the systems, and to a growing awareness of the technologies’ marketing benefit in showrooms, says Steven Bayless, director of telecommunications and telematics at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a nonprofit industry and advisory group.
“The fact is, the auto industry is taking a cue from the consumer electronics and IT industries, and realizing people are buying cars because of their geek value and because of the technology in them,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be the Google driverless car. It can be a simple system with ultrasound or a camera that lights up a warning on the dashboard or rearview mirror. Those are, potentially, selling points that do not carry a huge incremental cost.”
Some models are moving to electrified steering—eliminating the clunky hydraulic system for an electrically actuated system. Electrified steering not only increases fuel efficiency but allows for things like automated parallel parking. With a few ultrasonic sensors on the bumper, the driver only has to keep his foot on the brakes to control the speed, and the car takes over the steering for parallel parking.
As more models become saturated with sensing technologies, the next big shift could see cars transmit data between each other. When cars network with one another, they can broadcast data about rapid slowdowns or a wheel-slippage possibly caused by icing. Such information will hop among cars—including ones coming in the other direction—to notify drivers approaching the problem areas. “As we advance, there will be a much bigger need to connect those two systems [data collection and data transfer],” says Boyadjis.
Of course, Mercedes and Volvo—long among the industry’s leaders both in innovating and deploying such technology—are not standing still. Volvo last year even demonstrated “road trains,” in which a row of closely spaced Volvos autonomously follow a lead truck, like a set of bicyclists drafting each other. This could help avoid traffic jams and reduce fuel consumption.
“It’s a continuous evolution of these technologies,” says Alan Hall, director of technology communications at Ford. “We view these and develop them as safety features, and it’s really about moving beyond passive safety.”