Powered by the incredible pace of development in electronics, camera and radar technology, many modern cars can prevent a crash before it happens
A car's ability to protect you and your passengers against serious injury in an accident has improved a lot since the 'clunk-click' era of the 1970s.
Seatbelts have only had to be fitted as standard in the front of new cars since 1967 and it wasn't until 1983 that it eventually became compulsory to wear them.
Nowadays we take seatbelts and airbags for granted while new cars increasingly feature clever electronic systems to help prevent accidents in the first place.
Since 1997 the independent European New Car Assessment Programme, Euro NCAP, has helped bring about improvements in vehicle bodies which can now absorb the energy of quite severe crashes without the passenger compartment collapsing. This makes accidents much more surviveable.
Inside the car, multiple airbags - front, side, head and even knee - work together with adult seat belts to protect driver and passengers against contact with the hard structure of the vehicle's interior. Pre-tensioning devices in the seatbelts lock and tighten the belt webbing when a crash is detected and further limit injury risk for passengers.
Because of these developments, car crashes are now much more surviveable, but prevention is better than cure so, powered by the pace of development in electronics, camera and radar technology, many modern cars can actually help prevent a crash before it happens
blind spot camera
Small blind spot mirrors that you attach to the door mirror(s) have been around for years and some cars have been fitted with convex door mirrors.
Systems that use radar or cameras to warn if there's another vehicle in your blind spot as you start to change lanes are set to become commonplace.
Toyota lane keeping support
The rumble strip on a motorway between the hard shoulder and first running lane creates an audible rumble a vibration through the steering to warn you if you drift off-line.
Some cars now feature forward-looking cameras or other sensors to work out your position relative to any white lines on the road surface.
If you're travelling at speed and start to cross a white line without indicating, a lane departure warning system will give you audible, visual or tactile - seat or steering wheel vibration - feedback.
Some provide lane keeping support as well as warning. If you drift onto the white line without indicating the system applies a gentle correcting force through the steering.
Lane keeping support is the first small step towards the 'automated highway' - cars that are able to drive without input from the 'driver'.
Early systems are integrated with the vehicle's immobiliser. You need to provide a breath alcohol sample below the prescribed limit before the car can be started.
In the future, systems might be able to measure blood alcohol passively through sensors built into the steering wheel.
Toyota forward radar
Radar and forward looking cameras mounted behind the rear view mirror or front grill can detect other vehicles, obstacles and pedestrians.
Depending on the system you might get a warning of a possible collision first, followed by automatic pre-crash braking to reduce the severity of impact if the car decides a crash is inevitable.
At lower speeds, in an urban environment for example, cars might brake automatically to a complete standstill and prevent the crash.
Emergency braking/collision mitigation systems might also make adjustments inside the vehicle to prepare for the crash. Seatbelts can be tightened, seat position adjusted and windows closed before impact to help reduce injuries.
Some systems will change the dynamic characteristics of the vehicle. Suspension can be stiffened up and steering rate increased to give you a better chance of making a successful evasive manoeuvre.
Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) is such a significant advance that it is now taken into account in insurance group rating. Cars with AEB fitted as factory standard equipment could now benefit from a reduced insurance group rating. Read more »
Honda night vision
Infrared sensors can 'see' further than the car's headlights and give you advanced warning of pedestrians or animals in the road. Warm bodies show up white against a cold dark background in an image displayed on the sat nav screen or in a 'head-up' display in front of the driver.
Ultrasonic parking sensors that bleep when you approach a wall, and rear-facing cameras are both quite common already.
Side-view cameras, mounted in the front bumper or wing, will give you a clear view up and down the road as you edge out of a junction, even if your own line-of-sight is obscured.
Electronic Stability Control allows the car to take action and brake individual wheels when it senses the onset of a slide. This can cut the risk of skidding on a bend for example when you have to take suddden evasive action.
ESC will be compulsory on all new types of vehicles sold in Europe from 1 November 2011, and for all new vehicles from 1 November 2014.
Volvo driver alert
When you get tired, the way you drive changes. The changes are subtle but sensors looking at speed, steering input, road positioning, use of major and minor controls etc. can detect the early stages of drowsiness and warn the driver that it may be time to take a break.
A camera inside the car aimed at the driver can monitor your head position and warn you of a hazard you may not have seen because your head was turned away.
Jaguar active cruise control
Basic cruise control systems keep the car moving at a set, constant speed until you brake, accelerate or change gear.
From the system's point-of-view you're on an empty road so if someone cuts in front of you or you come up behind slower traffic you have to change lanes or override the cruise control and brake.
'Autonomous' or 'adaptive' cruise control systems use radar to detect other vehicles on the road. Knowing their position and relative speed the system can automatically maintain a safe speed and following distance.
Combined with lane keeping support, autonomous cruise control signals the possibility of the automated highway. Under specific conditions a car might be able to automatically keep within its own lane and maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front.
Mercedes Benz active lighting
Back in the 1960s one French car manufacturer sold cars with the headlights connected to the steering so that the lights would turn to point in the direction the car was turning. The idea didn't really catch on though.
When HID Xenon headlights were introduced the European authorities insisted that they were fitted with automatic self-levelling to stop other drivers being dazzled.
Using the same sort of technology and new sensors, car manufacturers are now developing adaptive headlight systems that move and adjust to the driving conditions. Corners and bends can be illuminated more clearly and high beam can illuminate as much of the road as possible without dazzling other drivers.
Cameras can recognise and 'read' speed limit signs to give you extra information about local speed limits to complement the built-in sat nav.
In the future cameras might be able to read other signs as well.
The subject of a major and ongoing government research project, at its most basic, an ISA equipped car will 'know' the speed limit anywhere be able to tell you what it is.
At the other end of the scale Intelligent Speed Adaptation can actively prevent you exceeding the local speed limit.
Polls suggest greater support for a half-way-house solution. You can choose when to switch a discretionary ISA system between 'controlling' and 'advisory', or even switch the system off altogether.
The AA gets calls from members wanting to know how they can get hold of this system.
(30 November 2012)