Think of road safety, and chances are you imagine a seatbelt. But these days, manufacturers are looking to higher tech solutions, like computers, sensors and wireless technology, to help keep drivers from harm.
Can 'smart car' technology prevent accidents? The EU thinks so.
Can your car chat with the road, and tell you when a patch of ice is up ahead? Can it sense when you are about to have an accident – and slam on the breaks on your behalf? If you accidentally hit a pedestrian, could it shoot out an external airbag, cushioning the blow? Or might it automatically call emergency services if there is breakdown, while recording the data about the accident and sending it to the authorities?
Intelligent Pedestrian Protection System by Siemens, 2003. The hood lifts up slightly to soften a pedestrian accident
Not all of these safety measures are commonplace yet, but the European Union hopes they soon will be -- and many more as well. Increasingly, automakers and safety regulators are developing "embedded technology" – advanced sensors and semiconductors built into the car -- to either prevent accidents or stabilize vehicles in a crash.
Revving up 'eCars'
The technical advances dovetail nicely with European policy. Europe is busily trying to promote auto safety, while boosting its automobile and high-tech industries. The EU Commissioner for Information Society and Media, Viviane Reding, (photo, below) clearly sees information and communication technology, or ICT, as the salvation of Europe’s automobile industry. At the International Motor Show in Frankfurt last week, she launched the EU’s "intelligent car" project, part of a larger effort to create more high-tech jobs in Europe. And she reiterated her plea for more countries to get on board her eCall emergency-call-technology initiative.
In 2003, the European Commission publicly set itself a goal of cutting the number of deaths from road accidents in half by 2010. (In Germany, more than 7,700 people still die every year in car accidents and over 520,000 people are injured.) The eCall action plan was a response to that goal. Its aim is to equip all cars in Europe with automatic emergency-call technology by 2009. Reding said she expects it to reduce road-accident fatalities by five to ten percent.
"The eCall system could save as many as 2,500 lives each year and it will reduce the seriousness of injuries by allowing quicker medical treatment," Reding said. "After an accident, eCall generates an emergency mobile phone call either manually by vehicle occupants or by an automatic activation of in-vehicle sensors. The emergency call carries voice and data directly to the nearest emergency service call center.
GPS systems could also help in keep drivers safe
Despite the benefits of such a system, only two countries – Finland and Sweden – have signed on to make it a reality. The hesitation elsewhere is due to the costs of putting the necessary response network in place. Still, Reding said she expects "a number of EU member states, including Germany" to sign on to the plan at an eCall meeting slated for October in Brussels.
eCall may be the most high profile of these "intelligent car" efforts, but it is by far not the last. In Frankfurt, Reding cited recent developments in anti-collision radar as an example of a successful application of EU funding.
"This innovation is the fruit of ... many years of EU research funding and direct regulatory support," she said. "Eventually the car will be able to detect all that is going on around it, enabling the construction of a protective ‘cocoon’ ... and reducing the risk of accidents. This is not just another fancy gadget."
Early warning system
A major recipient of EU funding is the Integrated Project PReVENT. It is also an international mix of private and public automotive and regulatory groups whose aim is to develop and demonstrate safety applications and technologies.
One PReVENT subproject is called Willwarn, or Wireless Local Danger Warning. Currently under development by DaimlerChrysler, Willwarn is a communication-based system that lets drivers know about dangerous road conditions ahead. According to a Daimler Chrysler spokesman, more than 90 percent of all car accidents could be avoided if the drivers are warned in time.
But not everyone can afford a Mercedes, Audi, or other high-end car that might come loaded with such high-tech features, and Reding knows it.
In Frankfurt, she said she hopes her Intelligent Car program will encourage public authorities to sort out regulatory barriers and speed up innovation so Europe can retain its position as the world’s leading market for safe, smart and clean vehicles. "Putting (these technologies) in luxury models is not my goal," she said. "I am looking for a mass penetration."