How close are we to a crash-proof car?

Policeman walks past crashed car by side of the road

Every year, 1.3 million people are killed and 50 million injured on the world's roads. Carmakers are racing to create a vehicle that will never crash, but can it be done and will drivers accept a computer that overrides their driving?

Less than 30 years ago, "clunk clicking" ourselves into our car seat belts seemed like the cutting edge of road safety technology.

Since then, we've seen airbags, anti-lock braking systems and crumple zones fitted to new cars.

Top causes of crashes

Contributory factors* Fatal All

*Recorded by police at scene. Percentages may not tally as multiple categories can be selected. Source: Dept for Transport

1. Driver/rider error



2. Injudicious action



3. Behaviour or inexperience



4. Road environment



5. Pedestrian error



Now the arrival of crash avoidance technology - systems that can alert drivers to danger and even take action to prevent accidents from happening - promises to cut the number of crashes on our roads.

So confident is Volvo of the power of its technology, it has pledged that beyond the year 2020, no-one will be killed or seriously injured in one of its new cars. In essence, the Swedish manufacturer is aiming to build a vehicle that will fully protect its occupants and crash less.

"The major cause of crashes is the driver not paying attention or drivers being distracted. This technology is giving cars eyes and knows when the driver fails," explains Thomas Broberg, Volvo's senior technical adviser for safety at the company's research centre in Gothenburg.

Other carmakers are making similar commitments. Toyota says it is aiming for zero fatalities and injuries, although it has not yet said when that goal would be achieved. And Ford is already marketing its new Focus - with its self-proclaimed "intelligent protection system" - as one of the safest vehicles on the mass market.

So what is the latest technology and can it really prevent crashes?

Systems that monitor blind spots and track the alertness of drivers, and electronic stability control - which can detect and help prevent a skid - are already being introduced to many new vehicles. Some cars also now have adaptive headlights that improve night-time visibility by pivoting around bends, as well as instruments that warn of a potential collision or when a vehicle drifts out of a motorway lane.

With up to 70% of crashes in the UK caused by driver or rider error, these measures are widely expected to help reduce the number of collisions.

One study by the US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has estimated that four of the currently available features - lane departure warning, forward collision warning, blind spot detection and adaptive headlights - could prevent or mitigate one out of every three fatal crashes and one out of every five crashes that result in serious or moderate injury.

While most people would welcome measures that assist motorists to make wiser decisions, systems that actively intervene in the driving process cause more controversy.

Research is being done on autonomous braking technology, which can stop a car when other vehicles or obstacles get too close, and lane-keeping support, which applies a correcting force through the steering if the driver drifts out of their lane.

The manufacturers are also developing adaptive cruise control, which can automatically maintain a safe speed and distance from other vehicles, and intelligent speed adaptation, which can, in its most active form, prevent a driver exceeding the speed limit.

Future street graphic

Research into effectiveness is in its infancy. A 2008 EU study by the Finnish VTT Technical Research Centre found the most promising technology after electronic stability control - compulsory in new cars in Europe - was a system preventing a driver straying from a motorway lane. It estimated that they could reduce deaths by about 15%.

The same researchers found that functions warning drivers they were exceeding the speed limit and of other potential hazards would cut fatalities by 13% and that emergency braking assistance and driver drowsiness warnings could potentially reduce deaths by 7% and 5% respectively.

However, other studies have been more optimistic. The US Highway Loss Data Institute found that 27% fewer insurance claims were made against cars fitted with Volvo's City Safety system, which uses autonomous braking technology to avoid front-to-rear low-speed crashes. And University of Leeds research has found that speed-limiting technology can reduce crashes causing injuries by almost 28%.

Start Quote

Who is responsible - me, the car manufacturer or the software engineer?”

End Quote Peter Rodger Institute of Advanced Motorists' chief examiner

Technology that removes decision-making responsibility from drivers remains contentious.

Critics argue that a motorist who is required to do little to keep his or her vehicle on the road is not likely to be an alert and safe driver. The Association of British Drivers believes all technology that takes responsibility away from the motorist should be prohibited.

"We have to be confident that the engineering can cope with a range of complexities in the same way as a human," explains Peter Rodger, the Institute of Advanced Motorists' chief examiner and former Met Police traffic inspector. "This is quite a leap of faith for me to take."

Rodger, like others, questions how a driver unaware of the road environment around them would be able to take control when the equipment fails in an emergency situation - something widely known as "automation-induced complacency".

"How do you manage the transfer from one [automated system] to the other?" he asks.

Increasing the role of technology also throws up questions about who is liable in the event of a crash, Rodger suggests.

"Who is responsible - me, the car manufacturer or the software engineer?"

Some believe the solution to these problems is actually letting computers take over driving completely. Fully intelligent vehicles that can "see" and communicate with other vehicles and the road environment.

The US National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates 81% of all light-vehicle crashes involving unimpaired - or non-drinking or drug-taking - drivers could be prevented by intelligent vehicles.

Start Quote

Should you have the right to be out of control so that you risk someone else? I don't think that's right”

End Quote Thomas Broberg Volvo's senior technical adviser

Oliver Carsten, professor of transport safety at the University of Leeds, is among those who believe fully automated vehicles working within an intelligent transport system are the desirable endgame.

"Why not?" he asks. "There are strong arguments for automating motorway driving, which many people find boring and during which time they want to be able to do something else, and which provides benefits in terms of safety and fuel consumption."

He believes multiple-vehicle accidents in difficult driving conditions, such as dense fog, could be avoided if driving were automated.

"The only thing going against it [automated driving] is if you consider the environmental impact. There would be an increase of 50% capacity in automated motorway lanes, which means more vehicles and more fuel."

But such full automation is still a "long way off", he suggests, as is building a car that never crashes.

What most carmakers are now pledging, he points out, is to eliminate deaths and injuries in their vehicles - not prevent collisions altogether.

Back at Volvo, Broberg is keen to reassure motorists that manufacturers are not attempting to take control away from drivers.

But he defends the ambition to override a human being when he or she makes a decision that endangers the lives of others.

"The car is only acting if the driver is not in control - it helps the driver to become a better driver. Should you have the right to be out of control so that you risk someone else? I don't think that's right."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Brillient until people get so used to having it, that when it fails, we will be back in the same situation!

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Out of the emerging technologies, the one I would be happy to see on all cars is collision avoidance systems. It would comforting to know that a car or lorry is not going to plough into the back of me or the cars behind me when queuing, especially on motorways. I would hope it would also prevent tailgating.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    So no need for expensive insurance then?

    As the car manufacturer is going to make it impossible for me to crash my car surely if I have an accident its their fault not mine! Fantastic news and no need for annoying failed opera singers on the telly either.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    A lot of drivers I have seen on the way in this morning should have their software looked at

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Autopilot works well for aircraft, so I'm sure it can work for cars. As long as the person in charge of a vehicle is capable of driving the vehicle manually, and has the option to do so at any time, I don't see any problem with the concept.
    It's the practicality of such a system that terrifies me!

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    A fully fledged automatic driving system would, inevitably, involve a government funded IT project. 'Nuff said?

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    It would be brilliant if no one has to be injured or killed for errors that I make as a human behind the wheel of an automobile. I do hope that other manufacturers follow this example.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Most cars are already driven by computers. (Formula 1, ironically, more than most.) The issue is the autonomous driving software, which I would only trust if I knew it had been written by a team of less than six people.

    Thought it might be advisable to take a sick bag. Watch the Stanford car doing handbrake turns on Youtube.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    "The major cause of crashes is the driver not paying attention or drivers being distracted"

    Hang on a minute. Haven't we been told over and over and over again that the only cause of crashes is excessive speed? Don't tell me that was just an excuse for all those fat, profitable speed cameras all along.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Automated cars are an inevitability. They have the possibility to massively reduce accidents and still increase efficiency (more cars on the road, but still less jams).
    Computers may not be perfect, nothing is, but they are at least sensible.
    Occasionally one may break down, but at least it won't carrier drunk in to a tree, or cut up other motorists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    A competent driver can see potential hazards a long way off and deal with them in an calm way without sudden braking or swerving. Would a computer allow for such judgements?

    While I'm not keen on technology making judgements for the driver, at least the emphasis is on avoiding accidents rather than the recent trend of keeping the occupants safe in a crash at the expense of avoidance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I am with Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear on this. I demand the right to have a car that goes 200 MPH in a 70 mile an hour country. We Top Gear fans know that we are better drivers than any other man or computer. What kind of country are we in when I cannot have the right to risk my life and those of others? We will be told to travel on trains and buses next with all the other smelly oiks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    just saw on the morning news BBC, a driver crashing through a coffee shop window, mistaken throttle and foot brake was the excuse!!! Daughter went to US to work, had UK driving Licence, had to pass US driving test. Drive around car park and park between 2 lines, that was it, did not even go onto the public road. Maybe D/tests should be universal!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I haven't had a crash in 40 years, but would happily buy a car which drove itself. No more mind-numbing concentration! Just like a train but with a comfy seat and without the hassle. I like the idea that other cars would then be driven by software which didn't drink or show off to its mates.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Alternatively we could all stay at home wrapped up in cotton wool and automatically being fed our five a day while watching Andrew Lansley giving us a lecture on the perils of smoking on a repeated loop.

    Maybe we should also breed children with shorter legs to make them run a little slower?

    For Gods sake just leave us alone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    As long as the car isn't controlled by Microsoft software (which crashes at an alarming rate) then I don't mind a computer controlling my car. Does this mean cars will get viruses? "My car isn't feeling well" may become an excuse for having a day off work. In fact, the car is already controlled by a computer, the Mk1 Brain, obviously it isn't good enough.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I'm all for computer controlled cars, right up until the point they fail.

    As long as their is a choice - driver input or AI then I see no problem with computers driving cars.

    Especially when after a hard day at work, after 16hrs, or having been down the pub, many are unfit to drive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Progress is progress. People may have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future but that's been the same throughout history. Give it a decade or two and we'll be struggling to remember what on earth all the fuss was about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    It's very easy to make a car crash proof, just remove the road wheels.

    Allowing computerized systems to take over the driving? No, not unless the vehicle manufacturers become totally liable for all traffic offences commited by the vehicles (and there will be lots).

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Well, my car already drives itself, greets me with "Hello Michael" and its flashing red light at the FRONT really is striking......


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