Crash proof cars?

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"We're evolving technologies to develop the capability where vehicles will be able to avoid crashes.” –John Capp, director for gobal active safety for Cadillac

Many folks are going to scoff at the concept of a “crash proof car” and probably rightly so for many reasons. I mean, let’s face it: no matter how perfect the technology, a very fallible human being is going to be behind the wheel, making the key decisions governing a vehicle’s actions.

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So if that human being is fatigued, distracted, or even worse, drunk or drugged, even the best vehicle safety technology package in world would be hard pressed to prevent a crash.

Yet, all that being said, vehicle engineers are pressing ahead with the concept of a “crash proof” car – because, frankly, many of them think it’s something that isn’t all that far-fetched.

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Take John Capp (seen at right), director for global active safety for Cadillac, a division of General Motors. He believes a host of existing technologies have already brought us a good way down the “crash proof” vehicle path. For example, he pointed to a host of active safety technologies already in place on the 2010 Cadillac DTS Platinum sedan – systems that many truckers can get on big rigs, as well:

Lane departure warning: Camera-based lane detection system that warns the driver when he or she leaves their lane without signaling. The camera, mounted near the inside rearview mirror, identifies traffic lane markings and provides audible alerts.

Blind spot alert: Twin radar beacons that detect an object in a vehicle's blind zone and provide a visual warning in the outside side mirror.

Adaptive cruise control: sensors detect objects in a vehicle's path and slow the vehicle down to avoid a collision.

I myself recently took a 2009 Chrysler Town & Country minivan equipped with a blind spot alert system on a 100 mile or so test run, and let me tell you, that proved a huge help on crowded fast-moving highways. A yellow triangle in the driver’s side view mirror would light up when vehicles were in my blind spot, and if I activated the turn signal in that direction a warning chime sounded – one that automatically cut off the radio so I’d be fully alerted to the danger.

[Other OEMs are boosting the safety footprint of their vehicles. Here are some of the safety improvements Ford Motor Co. added to its F-150 pickup last year.]

Cadillac’s Clapp added that near-term safety technologies his team is now experimenting with include in-vehicle Doppler radar, which could help drivers better identify obstructions or traffic jams on the road ahead.

Looking even further out, Capp envisions the construction of “autonomous vehicles,” ones that can communicate with each other, as well as traffic signals and buildings, to further enhance their safety response if not eventually learn to drive themselves.

“We see things moving toward a point in the future where perhaps vehicles won't crash,” said Capp. “That’s why we continue to work on developing advanced safety technologies that alert drivers to potential dangers around them.”

[Of course, it goes without saying that “crash proofing” a car includes designing them so the occupants are protected even if the vehicle itself gets torn to pieces. That work is done at places such as General Motor's safety center at the Milford Proving Grounds, located just north of Detroit..]

Like I said earlier, truckers are no stranger to these types of safety systems. And indeed, suppliers on the trucking side of the vehicle world are themselves still working to improve upon them. For example, Iteris just rolled out a new system called SafetyDirect that is designed to analyze real-time driver performance captured via the company’s lane departure warning or “LDW” system, relaying that data directly to fleet operators through integration with the truck's existing fleet communications system.

Such real-time transmission of data provides an immediate warning to fleet operators if their drivers are having difficulty staying in their lanes; often a first indicator of driver drowsiness or other potential problems.

Now, a lot of truck drivers might now be thinking, “Hey, this is nothing more than a way to spy on me.” And yes, there’s truth to that. But consider this: according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, rear-end, lane change and roadway departure crashes account for approximately 3.6 million police-reported crashes each year on U.S. roadways, with those three crash types resulting in about 27,500 of the country’s roughly 42,000 annual traffic fatalities.

Consider this, too: Iteris said that fleets using its LDW system report an average 84% reduction in lane departure-related accidents, which includes inadvertent lane change, sideswipe or run-off-road accidents.

So, if used properly, an LDW system connected back to a fleet’s safety department might give someone a chance to tell a driver, ‘Hey, you feel OK? You’re weaving out there on the road. Why don’t you take a break?’ And that might be all it takes to prevent a crash – even a minor one – and save both the driver and the fleet a lot of grief.

What's Trucks at Work?

Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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