Monday, 12 May 2008

Crash-Proof Car. Oh yes?

Apparently so! Volvo have invented the crash-proof car, with an 'electronic' bumper.

Strong, lightweight materials, “intelligent” airbags, complex radar and sonar sensors and GPS tracking will not only provide maximum protection, but will be able to monitor other vehicles, watch out for hazards, and even take over the controls to manoeuvre a car out of danger. Volvo talks of a “giant electronic bumper reaching out on all sides to gather information and feed it back to the car” – even before the flawed human at the steering wheel has become aware of a problem.

“Think of it like an autopilot system in an aircraft,” says Ivarsson, whose team of safety specialists includes not just engineers but also experts in biomechanics and human behaviour. “We still want the driver in the loop, but in the future there will be times when the car is in control.”

CitySafety works only at speeds below 19mph and uses laser sensors in the windscreen coupled with software able to measure the distance from the car in front and calculate its speed relative to your own. If the car in front suddenly reduces speed at a greater rate than yours does, CitySafety primes itself to stop the car. Then, if the driver fails to react and the system senses an imminent collision, it slams on the brakes.

“You might think the driver could be relied on to brake hard in this situation,” says Ivarsson. “But our research shows about 50% of drivers don’t brake at all before a crash – perhaps because they are paralysed by fear or simply distracted.
“The other 50% may brake, but probably not as effectively as they could do. A system like CitySafety ensures the vehicle slows down and brakes at the right moment.”
CitySafety will be rolled out gradually across the Volvo range, as well as some Ford models, as Ford owns the Swedish marque. And this is just the beginning of Volvo’s radical plans to revolutionise the way we drive.

Ivarsson foresees advances in driver information, with, for example, vehicles communicating with each other about traffic conditions and accidents further up the road. GPS tracking will provide drivers with real-time traffic information, in much the same way that a pilot or a ship’s captain is given detailed information of other planes or vessels in their vicinity, although drivers might object to their cars’ movements being tracked in this way.

But the article goes on to warn:

Some safety campaigners argue that the removal of human error could radically reduce road casualties, but others remain sceptical about how far machines should take over.

“We have to be very careful not to ‘underload’ the driver,” cautions Peter Rodger, chief examiner for the Institute of Advanced Motorists. “There is an issue in the airline industry that if the pilot is inadequately involved and something goes wrong, it takes them a long time to actively take over.

“There needs to be adequate involvement so the driver isn’t allowed to switch off in this way, so that they are ready to react if something goes wrong. We also need to be confident that these systems have the power to work in myriad real-life situations.”

Volvo admits some of its ideas may require new legislation and cooperation from governments before they can be properly implemented. And although a “crash-proof” car might sound like the ultimate low risk for insurance companies, if the car, rather than the driver, is in control, then who is responsible if it crashes?

“It does raise some imponderable questions,” says Ian Crowder of AA Insurance. “What if one of these devices steers you out of the path of another vehicle, but into a pedestrian on the other side, for example?

“And who would be to blame if these systems failed?”

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