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Technology takes control in the safety revolution

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Every so often television shows have a good laugh at the expense of past visions of the future.

Rocket cars, hover boards and the like have been touted by futurologists since the 1950s, and such predictions have usually fallen hilariously wide of the mark.

Cars that drive themselves?


But hang on.

Vehicles running on nuclear power might not be with us yet, but self-aware machines that can drive for us are much more of a reality.

Some technology that allows cars to take over aspects of control from the driver is already with us, and more sophisticated versions are on the way.

Safety is the driving force behind such systems, and with duty of care such a key concern for fleet managers, the emergence of new technology needs to be monitored carefully by businesses.

Motoring research organisation Thatcham is spearheading a campaign to increase awareness of collision avoidance technologies.

Technologies that scan the road ahead and take action to either warn the driver or intervene first appeared a few years ago in luxury cars such as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

They are now starting to filter down to volume cars.

Various systems are available, but all have similar principles.

Technologies such as radar or lasers detail obstacles in front of the car and identify collision threats.

They warn the driver through audible, sensory or visual alarms.

Some go further. Various systems pre-charge the brakes to ensure maximum braking power when the driver hits the middle pedal.

Others apply the brakes automatically.

Matthew Avery, Thatcham’s research manager, says: “Protecting the driver in the event of a crash is our primary concern.

“But prevention is better than cure. It would be better to avoid the crash in the first place and that’s exactly what these technologies are doing.

“We’re seeing new technologies that will have a significant effect on crashes and injuries in the future.

“Three-quarters of crashes occur at under 20mph. Front to rear low-speed shunts are the most common types of crash.

“If fleet vehicles had effective collision avoidance technologies, more than £2.1billion could be saved in the UK each year, and 125,000 injuries could be prevented.

"Some of these systems could be standard on future models.

“This is just the beginning of the collision avoidance revolution.”

A common fear of technologies that take over some control from the driver is that motorists could start relying on them, rather than treating them as a safety net.

Keen not to be seen as taking responsibility away from drivers, many manufacturers are trying to find ways to ensure their safety systems are a last resort only.


Volvo’s City Safety system is purposely designed to be a fairly unpleasant experience, according to Mr Avery.

“A big question is, will drivers adapt their driving styles and let them take over?” he says.

“This system’s intervention is so late and direct it doesn’t let drivers do that. The systems are not infallible.

"The driver always remains in control and that’s an important philosophy that we want to promote.

“It’s a concern to us that drivers will expect these technologies to save them and we need to investigate that. It is a driver aid, it doesn’t allow the driver to pay less attention and start catching up on emails.

“Thatcham is doing a lot of research into the effects of these systems and we will publish more data when we have it.”

While investigations into the psychology of drivers using the systems continues, manufacturers are already working on the next generation systems, which will be capable of reacting to pedestrians and taking control of the steering systems.

"But right now, each firm has its own brand of technology, and Thatcham is keen to see uniformity develop.

“We would encourage the common naming of systems and common interfaces.

“The warnings given should be the same between vehicles so you know the noise the vehicle is making is a common one – that you’re about to have a crash, do something about it, not that the lights are on or the boot isn’t shut,” Mr Avery says.

There are still many issues to be worked out with collision avoidance technologies, but at the rate they are developing and expanding, they seem set to be a common feature of vehicles in the near future.

Collision avoidance technology


Systems such as Mercedes-Benz’s Distronic Plus use radar to detect the vehicle in front slowing down or stopping.

The car automatically maintains a safe distance and will slow to a stop if necessary.


These systems, such as Honda’s CMBS feature, are starting to appear in volume models.

They use radar to warn of potential collision threats ahead, retract the seatbelts and sound an audible warning to the driver.


Volvo’s City Safety system uses a laser-based technology.

It brakes the car automatically at low speeds, and will be standard in the forthcoming XC60.

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