Making cars safer and cleaner dominates the agendas of both fleets and car manufacturers, and there is a vast global effort being put into new technology to achieve these objectives.
And while advances have been made, the next steps could see technology on fleet cars that would have seemed incomprehensible only a few years ago.
Drivers and passengers are safer in a car than they have ever been - that’s an incontrovertible truth. Likewise, engine emissions have fallen dramatically in recent years, through voluntary targets as the pressure to be greener grows.
But there are still scenarios that are a cause for concern.
In 2006, 3,294 children were injured on the roads, and of those, 2,025 were pedestrians. These numbers are falling, but still represent massive heartache for families.
Cars are also getting heavier, which presents physical problems in controlling a large mass travelling at speed.
There’s the problem of secondary collisions – often, after a crash, the driver is so shocked that they fail to react, and the car continues its trajectory out of control.
And there is also the environmental issue. Emissions need further reducing to slow global warming and improve air quality.
Safety in the 21st century is as important a fleet issue as any. Businesses lose money if drivers are hurt, and there’s a duty of care responsibility to ensure employee safety. There is also pressure on firms to cut emissions.
One of the world’s major innovators in automotive technology is Bosch. Motorists owe much to the German giant.
It’s developments include ABS, ESC and the diesel common-rail injection system.
So when it announces new innovations, the automotive community sits up and takes notice.
Dr Bernd Bohr (pictured), chairman of the Bosch Automotive Group, agrees that the major challenges are in accident reduction and lower exhaust emissions, not just in developed markets but at a cost Fleets can bear.
“The challenge is to make safety equipment affordable for low-price vehicles and to make vehicles as emission-free as possible. Tougher emission regulations across the world make this a top priority.
“We will be in a position to at least halve emissions of particulate matter and nitrous oxide over the next 30 years, even if the number of passenger cars increases more than ten-fold,” he says
“In a car with the equivalent performance of a 2.0-litre petrol engine, we can reduce CO2 emissions from 185 to 139g/km by combining a direct petrol injection system, turbocharging, engine downsizing, an ultra-efficient generator and the start-stop system,” he says.
“With diesel engines of similar performance, significant improvements can be made at acceptable costs, resulting in a reduction of emissions from 143 to 129g/km.”
Hybrid systems, he says, would result in further savings but at a higher cost.
“Unlike the other technology packages, this hybrid solution does not yet pay for itself through lower fuel consumption,” he says. “But we’re working on it.”
The future of safety systems lies with various different technologies working with each other – ABS, ESP (Bosch’s trade name for ESC), adaptive cruise control, seatbelts, airbags and so on, Dr Bohr says.
“This can result in predictive safety systems which, according to researchers, can reduce road deaths by 35%.
“Our predictive emergency brake is to be installed in a luxury-class model from 2009.
This system, with multifunctional video and radar sensors, will enable automatic braking and lane-recognition and high-beam control.”
Dr Bohr said networked systems could also be used for environmental purposes. Bosch’s start-stop system, currently available in the BMW 1 Series, uses an engine, brake and battery management combination to stop the engine when stationary and start it again when the brake is released.
Despite Bosch’s range of technology packages, it will be a challenge to reduce emissions enough to reach the proposed European target of 130g/km by 2012.
“This target can only be achieved if the high volume models play their part.”
Dr Bohr said improving the efficiency of the 50 models with the highest CO2 emissions by 20% would give an average fuel saving of about 0.4% in the European fleet.
“If we did the same for the 50 top-selling cars, it would result in savings of 14%.”
The future, Dr Bohr says, must be CO2 free driving. That can only be achieved by using fuel-cell technology running on renewable hydrogen.
But there are hurdles, such a fuel-cell’s service life, how to store the hydrogen and the fuel infrastructure.
“Alternatively, the battery-driven vehicle would be a solution, provided the electricity comes from renewable sources.
“But even electrical drive still requires considerable effort. For example, batteries’ power and density must be increased to at least three times their current level.
“The hybrid drive will help bridge the gap on the path towards the ultimate solution – although it can only be as good as the best internal-combustion engine, creating a hybrid drive will hone our expertise for developing the electric car of the future.”
There is a place in the future for the humble combustion engine.
“Our petroleum reserves are finite, yet there may be a way out – Sunfuel, a plant-based synthetic fuel,” Dr Bohr says.
“We shall adapt our injection systems to this fuel, which would allow a drive that uses both renewable energies and existing infrastructure and technology. There is more than one argument in favour of such a solution.”
Tried and tested
Protecting pedestrians is the one area where carmakers have struggled to make serious advances.
There are several systems on the market that use radar to “see” what’s ahead of the vehicle, but they only recognise metallic objects such as cars.
Emergency brake assist programmes can prepare brakes in anticipation of an impact, and adaptive cruise control detects vehicles ahead slowing down and speeding up.
But Bosch believes future developments will rely on video to really see what is happening and assess potential dangers.
It demonstrated an early prototype of one system, which uses a camera mounted near the rear-view mirror.
The system knows how fast the car is travelling and watches an appropriate distance ahead of the car – not just in front, but also to the side.
Should something stray into a predetermined field, the car will know and warn the driver.
The beauty of this system is that it can tell which way the object in front is moving – something walking out of the way of the car would not be confused something heading towards the car’s trajectory.
Our demonstration involved a car equipped with the system driving past a van.
A girl in front of the van started to step out but stopped – most drivers would be distracted, but not stop once it became clear that she had stayed on the pavement.
However, on the other side of the van a man stepped out into the road.
Although I was looking at the girl, the system spotted the man and flashed a warning on the screen.
Such a system isn’t likely to be available for a few years, and how it will work remains to be seen – the system could trigger an alarm or even dab the brakes to force the driver to look ahead.
The camera used in the this system isn’t limited to one use – Bosch has plans to use it for all sorts of safety and information systems.
It could have infrared capabilities and also interpret the landscape ahead in more detail.
Lane demarcations, traffic signals and speed limit signs could all be noted and displayed on the dash board.
How many times have you seen a speed camera up ahead and thought: “should I be doing 40, or 30?” Such a system should remove that worry.
As well as video, Bosch sees future vehicles equipped with radar, infrared and ultrasound to work in tandem with all other systems and build up a complete image of the road ahead.
Secondary collision mitigation
“Imagine an accident in which a car crashes at high speed into a vehicle driving ahead of it,” urges Dr Michael Strugala, head of development at Bosch’s occupant safety business unit.
“The force of the impact is so great that the vehicle driving in front is deflected to the side and crashes with great force into the crash barrier.”
It’s a common problem, and the secondary collision can be and is a killer.
Secondary collision mitigation (SCM) works by sending signals to the ESP, ABS and restraint systems to take control of a car after an impact.
The vehicle is brought to a halt as quickly as possible, under maximum stability.
We tried this on a test track.
The accident was simulated by a technician armed with a button that wrenched the steering to the left.
Being ready for something, I managed to regain control and stop the car fairly quickly, although I wouldn’t be confident of doing so if I were cruising up the motorway, listening to the radio.
With SCM turned on, the car immediately did a full emergency stop, far more effectively than I managed it.
It’s important to note that the system is capable of being overridden, should you come to a stop and see a lorry bearing down on you.
The system should be available by 2009.
Vehicle dynamics management
VDM is a system that works with ESP and other active chassis systems to reduce understeer and generally increase agility.
The best way to explain how it works is to compare it with a tank. To turn right, a tank’s left track speeds up faster than the right, and vice versa.
With VDM, the torque to the left or right wheels of the car is adjusted under the control of the ESP system, through a differential.
We tried it on a BMW 5 Series through a slalom course.
Without VDM, weaving through the cones produced increasing understeer as the speed grew – the car did not want to turn as fast as we turned the wheel.
But with VDM turned on, the difference was marked.
The wheel was lighter and more responsive, the car darting into the turns with far less reluctance.
The advantages are obvious – yes, it makes for a more responsive drive which would be great for generally motoring enjoyment, but the extra responsiveness under difficult conditions is a clear bonus in an emergency situation.
Being able to react and know that the car will go where you point it is most comforting.