A car is only as safe as the person driving it… but for how much longer will that be true?
Cars are so safe these days that it’s a wonder people still crash – but of course they do. After all, we are only human. The solution, of course, could be to take the control out of our hands by automating a large part of the driving task. If Airbus can build a massive A380 plane that can land itself on autopilot, then surely cars can take on some of the driving?
Engineers are still searching for the next invention that will dramatically reduce accidents. So far, crumple zones, seatbelts and airbags have all been major safety improvements that try to limit the damage when a car actually crashes, but more time and money is being spent on trying to avoid the crash in the first place. Anti-skid brakes and electronic stability control were the first major steps in taking some of the control away from the driver, and they are now standard in almost all cars and some utes, vans and trucks.
Some cars now come with technology, using infrared or complex cameras, that automatically slows the vehicle to maintain a safe distance to the vehicles in front. The first of these systems just beeped a warning if a car in front slowed, but now they can fully brake the car to a stop without the driver touching a thing.
A few carmakers have already taken the next step, introducing affordable systems that even sense pedestrians and stop the car automatically.
BMW (and other premium brands) has even introduced technology overseas that enables the car to read speed signs and constantly change the cruise control speed accordingly. It had to pull the system from sale in Australia because, however smart the technology was, it couldn’t read all of our local streets signs.
Australians are also being introduced to more cars that can park themselves, although only in some specific types of parking spots (often parallel only).
Some critics argue, however, that the increased automation of cars could lead drivers to not concentrate fully when driving.
Interestingly, new technology being developed in Europe will actually encourage drivers to relax completely, read the newspaper or do their makeup. It’s called platooning. Seriously. The idea is that a platoon of cars follows behind a truck and the cars are completely automated. The truck driver, hopefully a relatively responsible one, controls the whole group (which is bunched up together) using infrared and other wireless control technology.
Once a car joins the platoon, the car goes into automated mode. This allows the driver to do whatever he or she wants, without the worry of having to concentrate on the road. Want to read that magazine, watch the footy on your iPad or send text messages? No problem. When you get near your nominated exit, the car will issue a warning and you take over control and leave the platoon.
It sounds far-fetched, but is realistic enough to be promoted by the European Union, which is exploring the concept referred to as SARTRE. It has even conducted real-world tests using Volvo cars and trucks – and there were no crashes.
The advantages of this system include safety, partly because the system is automated and reduces the chance of human error, but also because there is less chance of fatigue. Another benefit is reduced fuel consumption, due to the cars following closely behind a truck that breaks through the air, but also because automated vehicles are expected to be more economical than humans and their lead-feet.