Smart cars could save livesOver one million people die in traffic accidents every year. Fortunately the automotive industry is breathing some sense into its products.
These things are already reality, at least in the R&D departments of major carmakers. But it could take a while for these nifty inventions to catch on in the marketplace. In the past, car manufacturers have concentrated mainly on the passive safety of the vehicle occupants. Seat belts, airbags and bodywork, which absorb much of the energy in a collision, are standard issue today.
Their widespread introduction has contributed to a sharp decline in the number of accident victims in recent years. In 1970, more than 21,300 people died on German roads; in 2010 that figure had fallen to 3,648 – the lowest toll on record.
The European Commission intends to halve the number of traffic fatalities in the 27 EU countries – from 35,000 in 2010 to 17,500 by 2020.
To achieve that, experts such as Christoph Lauterwasser and Johann Gwehenberger from the Allianz Center for Technology (AZT) are focusing on Electronic Stability Control (ESC) systems, which will be required by law for newly registered vehicles at the end of 2014, and the introduction of automatic emergency braking and lane guidance systems for trucks and buses.
“If ESC were implemented on a large scale, the number of traffic deaths could be cut by 35 percent to 40 percent,” says accident researcher Gwehenberger. “There’s a good reason why it’s called the number two lifesaver after the seat belt.”
But it will be a while before all vehicles are equipped with ESC, which prevents skidding by selectively applying brakes to the wheels to help steer the vehicle. In Germany, for instance, cars are eight years old on average; in other countries they tend to be even older.
“We’re currently harvesting the fruits of road safety measures introduced at the end of the nineties and early noughties,” says Christoph Lauterwasser, CEO of AZT Automotive.
Last year, the accident researchers at AZT conducted a study to consider the safety benefit of driver assistance programs on German roads. In the study, Johann Gwehenberger and his colleague Thomas Behl looked at accident data from the Allianz claims database, which registers over a million vehicle claims every year.
The accident researchers also examined the development of “intelligent” driver assistance systems, such as active hazard braking, intersection assistant, pedestrian and cyclist detection, and integrated lane guidance with lane-departure warning and lane-change assistance.
“Large-scale implementation of these four systems could help prevent around half of all car and truck accidents involving personal injury or at least mitigate their consequences,” Gwehenberger believes. “The economic impact of accidents could also be reduced by around seven billion Euros a year,” adds Christoph Lauterwasser.
Smart Cars recognize green wavesThe advantage of these systems is that they not only react to imminent danger, but also defuse critical situations by means of anticipating driving.
Thus, the intersection assistant warns against jumping a red light or making risky turning maneuvers and recommends the correct driving speed to synchronize with a “green wave” of traffic lights. The trick is a camera system installed at intersections, which films the traffic situation and sends the information and the traffic light intervals to the vehicle.
An onboard computer analyzes the data together with information such as the vehicle’s speed, distance to the intersection and direction of travel. It’s a futuristic scenario that requires smart cars as well as a suitably designed traffic infrastructure.
The research departments of car manufacturers and universities have already taken it a step further: They are now experimenting with fully networked vehicles that can communicate with each other.
For example, the car of the future will be able to detect whether any vehicles up ahead have braked and reduce its speed in good time. It sends information to the vehicles behind if it encounters adverse road conditions, warns of traffic jams, and contacts the workshop as soon as a technical problem occurs. This information is analyzed remotely, and the problem rectified by onboard software.
Driver assistance systems to lower insurance premiums?Of course the high-tech systems and technically complex driver assistance systems come at a price. And Lauterwasser and Gwehenberger are not very optimistic either that their widespread implementation will lead to lower insurance premiums. According to the experts, there should be a reduction in the number of claims, but if the sensor-studded high-tech vehicles are involved in an accident, it will cost a pretty penny.
Lauterwasser and Gwehenberger don’t believe that fully networked systems could completely take over control of a vehicle at any point, but they do think that driver assistance systems will take on more and more tasks.
Taking the rapid aging of the population into account, this sounds rather reassuring: computer-controlled assistants don’t get tired, have excellent vision and are generally less error-prone than their flesh-and-blood masters.