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 480.

    "But he defends the ambition to override a human being when he or she makes a decision that endangers the lives of others." -I remember Airbus saying that just as the A320 the pilot was overridden and it flew in to a forest. Neither the computer nor the pilot knew what the other was trying to do. Who's responsible for the accident?

  • rate this

    Comment number 479.

    # 477. onlyMEEE

    How about "use a low gear and try to avoid using the brakes" (AA)

    Or perhaps "When you need to slow down, try to anticipate junctions or turns and change down to a lower gear before applying the brakes" (RAC)

    People like you are a danger on the roads.

  • rate this

    Comment number 478.

    1 Hour ago
    "I wish the lorry behind me on the M25 today was driven by a computer. Perhaps then it wouldn't have driven 6 inches from my bumper at 60mph"

    On the contrary - it probably would have done - perfectly!

    Wagon drivers want to be train drivers????

  • rate this

    Comment number 477.

    The AA`s advice.
    .".Driving through ice and snow...
    Don't brake harshly - you risk locking up your wheels and you could skid further."

    No mention is made about using gears to slow down.

    Try the IAM`s free winter driving guide:

    Both organisations recommend actually USING THE BRAKES, albeit very gently.

  • rate this

    Comment number 476.

    3 Hours ago

    Q ) Why is it then that the AA, RAC, ROSPA, Red, BSM, in fact every single driving instructor in the UK, teaches:
    ....Gears to go...................... BRAKES TO SLOW?

    A) The brakes act on ALL 4 WHEELS, the force is spread evenly, skidding is LESS likely, under ALL conditions

    It's better to keep wheels turning than stopped and acting only as skids.

  • rate this

    Comment number 475.

    RE comment( 2) I would suggest one goes and brushes up ones knowledge on automobiles,their varied construction,design IE front,rear or four wheel drive and the different technique involved in driving them in differing circumstances and varying conditions. Before proliferating ignorance to the thousands on our roads,who have even less understanding !

  • rate this

    Comment number 474. bob
    3 Hours ago
    As long as the cars dont run on windows we should be fine!

    We DON'T want them run on Apple - that'll double the price of a Lambourghini.

    The "Curtains" option will stop you from getting scared and you can use your cartons of cold milk from the shop to cool the controlling Sinclair Spectrum.

  • rate this

    Comment number 473.

    So aeroplanes land in fog thanks to technology and we can't do that with cars? Anything that improves my safety while driving is a bonus. I'd welcome a car that goes for my shopping without me and that is a possibility! It would have to be electric as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 472.

    Periodically, my car used leave a puddle of tears where it was parked until headlamp washer clapped out. And that was without a computerised personality!

  • rate this

    Comment number 471.

    # 443.onlyMEEE

    You're talking utter nonsense. Everyone knows that in icy conditions you use gears to slow down in preference to using brakes. If you actually check the AA and RAC websites I think you'll find they concur.

  • rate this

    Comment number 470.

    10 Minutes ago
    lets start with trains the technology used would easily be upgraded to enable driverless trains they stop automatically if the driver goes through a red light no reason it cant start and stop automatically

    As long as the wheel-rail interface works properly

  • rate this

    Comment number 469.

    The Air France crash in the Atlantic last year or so was partly due to the computers in the place.

    Yeah, it's a great idea ... but a lot of people died.

  • rate this

    Comment number 468.

    lets start with trains the technology used would easily be upgraded to enable driverless trains they stop automatically if the driver goes through a red light no reason it cant start and stop automatically but would you travel on one at 125 miles per hour

  • rate this

    Comment number 467.

    I MAY trust a computer, but I'd have serious doubts about the Software "engineering" !! - an oxymoron if ever there was one

  • rate this

    Comment number 466.

    CONT of 462.

    YEAR ...5000... The machines find out we`re watching.


  • rate this

    Comment number 465.

    The technology is already here. LGVs have speed limiters - they cannot go faster than the national limit. How about making that compulsory for all vehicles? Imagine how many lives would be saved!
    But it's never going to happen because people are stupid and will fight not to be forced to abide by the laws of the road. Thanks Clarkson...

  • rate this

    Comment number 464.

    "I wish the lorry behind me on the M25 today was driven by a computer. Perhaps then it wouldn't have driven 6 inches from my bumper at 60mph"

    On the contrary - it probably would have done - perfectly!

  • rate this

    Comment number 463.

    Me? I would certainly trust the software designed by an array of talented engineers more than a brainless chav when it comes to driving a car.

  • rate this

    Comment number 462.

    YEAR...2050........Cars operate themselves.

    YEAR...3000........Everything operates itself.

    YEAR.. 3050........We become bored.

    YEAR...4000........Machines have an idea.

    YEAR...4050........Mankind realises it`s 2000yrs too late and contents itself by watching old `Terminator` movies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 461.

    I would be in favour of some device to stop tailgating , when you leave a car gap on the motorway some idiot comes along and fills it , hence pile ups . not sure about control of the car but having said that don`t planes have auto pilots that can take off and land a plane !!


Page 1 of 24



Copyright © 2015 BBC. 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.