Automotive safety systems have evolved tremendously considering that the humble seatbelt wasn’t even mandatory in new North American vehicles until 1968, 13 years after it was first made available as an option (see “The Seatbelt Turns 60” for more on the history of the seatbelt). Likewise, airbags began appearing as optional equipment in an increasing number of passenger vehicles from 1975 onwards, until they were finally required by law in 1998. Seatbelts and airbags are reactive technologies designed to reduce the severity of injuries during a collision, and while they are with no doubt extremely effective, it would still be preferable to avoid a collision altogether. Active and partially-active safety systems are being offered on a wider range of vehicles, and this article gives an overview of some of the most effective new features: Electronic Stability Control, blind spot detection, forward collision avoidance, and pedestrian detection systems.
One partially-active technology that has significantly increased the avoidability of collisions is Electronic Stability Control (ESC) – a system that helps a driver to maintain control of the vehicle during a sudden braking or swerving manoeuvre. The system has been found to reduce fatal single-vehicle crash risk by 49 percent and fatal multi-vehicle crash risk by about 20 percent. In fact, ESC has proven to be so effective at reducing the occurrence of severe and fatal collisions that Transport Canada has made it mandatory in all passenger vehicles manufactured on or after September 1st, 2011.
Current available safety technologies (including ESC) still require that the driver recognize that a collision is imminent, and respond in an appropriate manner in order to avoid. However, drivers may be distracted, or may not be sufficiently cued to an approaching hazard and therefore may not be able to respond in a timely manner. Consequently, automotive manufactures have begun to implement new technologies and myriads of sensors to monitor both external and internal parameters of a vehicle and respond to hazards faster than a human being ever could. Most new vehicles now offer powerful driver assistance features such as blind spot detection, forward collision avoidance, and pedestrian detection.
A blind spot detection system uses short wave radar to identify whether an object (such as another vehicle) is positioned in a driver’s blind spot. Drivers are typically informed of a vehicle in their blind spot by an indicator lamp embedded in the vehicle’s side mirrors. If a driver attempts a lane change into an occupied lane, some systems may even intervene and gently apply the brakes on the opposite side of the vehicle (i.e. opposite to the direction of the lane change) to bring the vehicle back into its original lane (this is known as yaw braking).
A forward collision avoidance system is similar to blind spot detection, however, it makes use of long range radar to look out in front of the vehicle. If the system detects that the vehicle is closing in on another without adequate response from the driver, the system will typically alert the driver through an audio/visual or even tactile stimulus (such as vibrating the steering wheel). Newer systems can even bring the vehicle to a full stop without the need for driver intervention.
Lastly, pedestrian detection systems make use of forward facing cameras and specialized algorithms to identify pedestrians in danger of contacting the vehicle. These cameras sense infrared signals and therefore operate exceptionally well even at night when the chances of not seeing a pedestrian are considerably higher.
Active safety systems have become increasingly effective in recent years, and as the technology continues to develop, advanced collision avoidance technologies continue to be offered on a wider range of vehicles. The effectiveness of these technologies make them a valuable offering on any new vehicle, especially as a single avoided collision would likely pay off the added cost of opting for these systems.