Vehicle Safety

It was just over fifty years ago now that the world’s first three-point safety belt was invented by Volvo, replacing the basic lap belt. The seat-belt was at the time of invention a revolutionary leap in automobile safety that dramatically reduced lives lost in crashes. Now, some fifty years later, the industry is on the verge of a second safety revolution, although this time the focus is on electronic technologies such as the ESC (Electronic Stability Control) systems that attempt to reduce the likelihood of an accident occurring, as opposed to just attempting to lessen the damage in the event of an accident; essentially the province of older non-electronic technologies such as seat-belts, and crumple zones. The host of new car safety advancements and electronic systems, dubbed “Crash Avoidance Technologies”, that have recently emerged indicate the shift in focus on car safety from reactive to proactive technologies. These systems include forward-collision warning systems, lane-departure warning and blind-spot warning devices, and what is regarded as perhaps the epitome of crash-avoidance technology, the previously mentioned electronic stability control. The plethora of new safety systems, once the exclusive domain of luxury vehicles, or found only as an expensive optional extra are becoming commonplace with some countries; particularly the US, even going so far as to make electronic stability control (ESC) equipment mandatory in all vehicles, estimating that the universal adoption of such technology will save 10,000 lives nationally a year. It is also a mandatory requirement placed on new vehicle purchases by many large fleet customers such as car rental companies, particularly in Sydney.The somewhat archaic yet effective safety protection afforded by the seat-belt is now being redefined; no longer are safety features designed solely for the purpose of mitigating injuries resulting from accidents, but instead are intended as preventative measures. Rather than featuring as individual options and gadgets, these technologies will generally be grouped as an integration of multiple systems under a single safety “package”. Lexus for example is emphasizing the way its safety features work as part of a common system by marketing its smart cruise control, lane-departure warning and ESC technologies into a single smart package called Lexus Vehicle Dynamic Integrated Management. The integration of such high-tech safety systems, referred to variously as “co-drivers” or “assistants”, and the ceding of brake, throttle and perhaps eventually steering control to a microchip does raise some potential issues for drivers and car companies alike. Do drivers actually want or need assistance at the wheel? Who is actually in control of the vehicle, the computer chip or the operator? Summary: Over the following weeks, current and future advances in automobile safety will be further examined and potential issues that may arise through the use of such technology will be discussed. In particular we will note its impact on fleet purchasers such as car rental companies in Sydney. The increased reliance on, and the electronic sophistication of these technologies will define the future of car safety and revolutionize the relationship between the operator, passengers and the vehicle itself. As Nicole Nason stated, in an address to the US congress last autumn, “...the most promising gains in highway safety are going to come from the deployment of crash-avoidance technologies. Today the technology exists not only to ameliorate the severity of a crash, but to help prevent it outright”. For the first time since the advent of automobiles, technology may help overcome one of humanities fatal failings, distraction on the road.