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Crash Test Dummies No More

No more looking before a left-hand turn. Car makers are experimenting with technologies that will warn drivers about impending collisions, and in some cases, take action.

Automakers are developing next-generation electronic sensing systems that look for impending accidents and react to potential hazards, making the roads much safer for both drivers and pedestrians.

Honda and Mercedes are developing both driver safety systems and lane departure warning mechanisms that could reduce the frequency and severity of accidents. And while some of these emerging technologies are still works in progress, there are a few that have already made their way into vehicles.

Two of these, according to Robert LaGuerra, senior analyst at ABI Research, are the recently introduced lane departure warning (LDW) technology and pre-crash systems that are being adapted to protect pedestrians.

The 2006 Infiniti M mid-size luxury sedan incorporates LDW technology developed by Iteris, Inc., that uses a camera to detect lane markings in front of the vehicle and monitors if the vehicle drifts into another lane The system audibly warns drivers to take corrective action if they appear to be drifting, according to Infiniti.

Driver safety systems – which will be more integrated with driver activities once they are fully deployed – will help motorists avoid crashing into other vehicles and objects through the use of on-board optics, radar and object detection algorithms that warn drivers of impending collisions. As a last resort, they prepare the vehicle for an impending crash by applying a braking force and adjusting passenger safety belts.

The 2006 Lexus GS features a Pre-Collision System (PCS) that uses a millimeter-wave radar system to calculate the direction, distance and speed between vehicles. Similarly, the 2006 Acura RL’s Collision Mitigation Brake System (CMBS) uses radar to anticipate possible accidents based on speed and proximity to the vehicle ahead. CMBS warns the driver to take action through visible and audible cues and can also initiate braking to reduce the vehicle’s speed.

“The combination of Short Range Radar and optic technologies provides good object detection and classification,” LaGuerra says.

According Charlie Baker, vice president of research and development at Honda, the company is looking to adapt the technology to avoid hitting smaller objects such as pedestrians that enter the roadway.

“Systems of this type are a new breed, because they protect pedestrians and not the occupants of the vehicle, and as such, consumer demand is questionable,” says LaGuerra.

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This year, some automakers are taking their first steps to reduce fatalities by redesigning vehicle exteriors, while Honda and Mercedes are developing sensing technologies that will automatically reduce impact. More than 60 percent of pedestrian fatalities – and there are 14 each day – are due to head injuries, according to Baker. He said that fatalities are frequently caused when a person’s head is forced against the hood and windshield wiper area.

For those accidents that can’t be avoided, Honda is researching adding airbags into the A-pillar between the front and back seat that would expand outside of the vehicle and protect pedestrians if they strike its side, Baker said.

New European safety requirements are motivating automakers to introduce pedestrian safety technologies. LaGuerra said the European Commission requires automakers to meet 2003 safety directive (2003/102/EC) beginning in October 2005. LaGuerra said the first generation electronic-based systems would be reactive and attempt to minimize injury after impact by raising the hood at the base of the windshield.

Upon a front impact with a pedestrian, the hood will automatically rise to create a space above the much harder engine block and prevent penetrating the windshield. Reducing contact with the engine and windshield can dramatically reduce head injuries, according to Honda

Vehicle designs that favor pedestrian safety are likely to influence models produced in other regions such as the U.S. market, according to LaGuerra. Manufacturers will have to meet even tougher European requirements in 2010.

Honda has been performing its own pedestrian safety tests for many years and introduced its first vehicle with pedestrian safety features in 2000, and since then the company has sold 3 million cars with these features, according to Baker.

Mercedes-Benz will introduce a vehicle next year with a hood redesigned for pedestrian safety and is investigating redesigning its bumpers, according to company spokesman Robert Moran.

“However, we believe that increasing passive safety features holds much less promise to the goal of reducing injury severity and frequency of pedestrian collisions [than] active safety [technologies],” said Moran in an email.

Karl Brauer, editor in chief of automotive website Edmunds.com, said reducing pedestrian fatalities in the United States is difficult because there are more large vehicles such as SUVs and trucks on the road. Some vehicles that cannot pass the European tests will only be sold in the United States, he said.

Consumers will likely see continual improvements in safety feautres during the next few years as automakers seek to differentiate their vehicles, according to LaGuerra. These technologies should reduce the number and severity of collisions with other vehicles and pedestrians.

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