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 40.

    Autopilots are NOT 100% reliable, and when flying you usually have tens of seconds or minutes to react. Not tenths of a second as on the roads. Electronics systems fail - especially when consumer grade, not aerospace grade. ABS often increases stopping distances - especially on very slippery roads. Removing responsibility makes us all less safe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    It takes a lack of imagination, and arrogance not to believe technolgy driven vehicles would be better. Though the road environment is more complicated than say the rail environment, it is less so that the air, where automatically flown machines are in use. Automatic cars NOW are the way to go!

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Will the new Volvos spot morons with concrete blocks on bridges?

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Then there's the matter of "risk compensation". Historically technology that theoretically reduces risks results in people taking the benefits in, say, increased speed or reduced effort rather than safety, because there's a level of risk we're comfortable with associated with travel. Hence seat belts increased pedestrian injuries because drivers felt safer and drove faster.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    As an experienced driver, the last thing I would want if I saw a situation developing ahead which the computer had not yet analysed, and decided to hit the brakes would be a message flashing up on a head up display saying "Are you sure"? I would also not like a dodgy soldered joint in the equipment to literally result in the "Blue screen of death".

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Cheaper and safer?
    Reduce the number of cars on the road.
    Improve public transport (bus, train, bikes, electric taxis, boats, legs etc.)
    Oh and ban programmes like Top Gear, shot J.C. AND his family.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    We would be better of automating the vehicles completely and making everyone a passenger - essentially removing the person from the equation completely. Then we could all 'enjoy' the driving experience so often discussed in car ads! This might sound easier than it acutally is but anything that could get rid of that opera singer (and insurance premiums obviously) can't be bad!

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Of course there will be a few IT generated crashes on first generation fully automated cars and they will be much publicized but the trend is not stoppable.
    In future driving a car will take three things: a computer, a driver and a dog. The computer will drive the car, the driver will watch the computer, the dog will bite the driver if he tries to touch the computer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    We will need cabled compliant roads built to read the cars inner technology. It must be better than relying on some of the drivers we encounter on the roads.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.


  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Once the computer failure rate is less than that of a human there is no "But what if the computer fails?" excuse to not use it, as you're no worse off than before.

    The problem lies between now and then. Perhaps computers could be assistants and issue warnings or suggestions. That way, the driver still has to concentrate and is merely *assisted* in *making better decisions*.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane Departure Warning and Adaptive Headlights are already available as an option on most BMW's.

    BMW are already trialling vehicles that can drive themselves at both low and high speeds.

    Why haven't BMW been involved in this article as they are normally at the forefront of new technology? - especially further ahead than the likes of Ford, Toyota and Volvo......

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    The single greatest safety system that could be implemented would be a giant spike in the centre of the steering wheel.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    If the system helped you to avoid traffic and parking violations (not just cameras), I’d be all for it, as that might strike a blow against greedy anti motorist councils!

    Improvements to road safety & fuel efficiency should be welcomed. There are many computer systems that take care of public safety, for example with air & rail travel which work very well, but human overrides must remain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    PS to #21 It should be impossible for any car to ever exceed the speed limit, by design. Racing is for race tracks NOT the public roads!

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    ............and if you notice that your car hasn`t seen the brick wall you`re heading for, simply turn it off and then on again.

    It`s all in the new edition of "Roadcraft", by Isaac Asimov.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    The last three vehicles I have owned have had electronics issues, a merc that would switch off the engine, a transit that immobilised itself due to a faulty circuit and an alfa (where do I start?). I remember fondly my Austin Maestro mechanical van where everything could be fixed for under twenty quid from the breakers. It's a ridiculous idea and will cause more issues than it solves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    No way.

    My last car had it's engine cut out by it's computer having apparently made a false reading of a sensor, not nice while overtaking a lorry at the time.
    It was only 3 months old so the electronics were effectively new.

    My life, my decisions, and I do not have any faith in the current level of technology to trust it after that incident.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    As someone who has worked in IT for 30 years, I'm wary about the reliance on electronics. Over 15 years and 330,000 miles of driving in my current car, the thing which has failed without warning is the electronics. If you read owners' car reviews, the main problems are electronics. Have an override and get the manufacturer to pay my insurance and maybe... but make it compulsory for U25s.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    I use both cruise control & automatic speed limiting. They cost me £150 but they are well worth it. I would really love to have adaptive cruise control that slowed me down as the traffic in front slowed down & vice versa & a speed limiter that knew the speed limit so I did not have to keep manually adjusting it. Anti collision radar would be nice too. I've tried auto parking - it is OK but..


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