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."


More on This Story

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    The sooner the better.

    I would like to see car manufactures build in a device that detects mobile phones being on and have it set up that your car wont move unless your phone is off or it is in a cradle that makes it hands free and phone calls only not texts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    If we eventually end up with cars that can't crash then that's good. It means fewer deaths and injuries. So get over your egos people and welcome the future of safer roads and journeys.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    I like the idea of KITT being in charge, but a big fear would be the notion that it might make those inclined to drive under the influence to abuse it. . . . .

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    So long as it's not based on any version of MS Windows! Ctrl-Alt-Del to reboot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Anonymous would have a field day!

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    @ 68 biscuitlad


    To quote the text, in bold, under the table you refer to;

    "Recorded by police at scene. Percentages may not tally as multiple categories can be selected."

    i.e. the police can tick more than 1 box when classifying an accident.

    Not too hard to understand.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Instead of idiot proof car how about getting the idiots off the road.
    Use the current test standard as a beginning and force everyone to learn to drive properly to the advanced standard.
    Not only will the roads become safer, more free flowing and able to carry more traffic the economy will benefit from the increase in enployment required to deliver the training

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    I don't know why people are so reluctant for computer controlled cars considering how much of our lives are already so dependent on it.

    Also, although it's both easy and fashionable to claim anything by Microsoft will blue screen their entire life, it's worth noting that Windows 3.1 has been embedded on some commercial aeroplane systems until 2008, and they seem to be doing fine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Yes Trikster, BMW are quite advanced in this area of technology. However, you do pay a premium for this. Such technology filters down to cheaper cars when the cost of the technology comes down.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    Humans controlling cars cause more deaths than wars & genocide. Satnavs warn us not yet to trust programming. Computers are still unrelaible, their programming as flawed as any human's assumptions. They might usefully warn in case of danger or impending emergency, but I would not trust them to intrude or assume control.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    The ultimate end to this striving for zero road casualties will be to ban any non computer-controlled and crumple-zoned road user. Pedestrians, bicycles and motorbikes will become relegated to a far less safe (and far more enjoyable) past.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    I don't think the responsibility of driving should be taken away from the driver. If anything the thought of being killed in a car crash should be enough to tell people to drive properly. As soon as we have cars that don't crash, people will start getting lazy with there driving, so what would happen then when the car malfunctions and were not prepared for it, better teaching is the way forward.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    What are those percentages about?

    70% of all accidents caused by driver error
    29% Injudicious action
    29% Behaviour or inexperience

    It doesn't add up to 100 however you look at it - typical police statistics! Who edited this piece? Are the other stats as bad?

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Why would you want this?

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    @53 - Go park up on the hard shoulder of the M25 at the end of the Heathrow runway and count the objects in the air that could be considered significant from a safety point of view (then add one for the ground). Now try and do the same for objects on the ground with respect to vehicle safety. Comparing air and road is comparing apples and manned space flight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    And they said the Titanic was unsinkable, too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    I dont like the idea simply because humans make computers, humans make mistakes therefore computers will make mistakes. Certain situations will occur that the computers haven't been programmed for and it will simply go wrong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    As a driver I am culpable for any mistake I make leading to an accident.

    If an accident were caused by faulty technology, who would be held to account?

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    Longevity and reliability would be an issue as the car gets older and the sensors would suffer corrosion, (many older vehicles suffer electrical issues). Replacing all of these sensors would be a fantastic boost to the car manufacturer’s profits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    39. Charles_Norrie 39.
    ...........the road environment is less complicated than the air, where automatically flown machines are in use.
    Hi Charles,
    I`m sorry but that is complete rubbish. Auto-pilots are only used when there is no other traffic, e.g. in un-restricted airspace between airports and sometimes during landing.

    They don`t deal with other aircraft. The pilot does


Page 21 of 24



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.