Mark Harris
CRUNCH TIME April 2008

Toyota's innovative Rav4

Is a world free from car accidents possible? Or even desirable? Mark Harris investigates

You’re walking to the pub, thinking about the evening ahead, and step into the road without looking properly. A car whips round the corner, knocking you over. The driver of the people carrier behind is chatting on the hands-free and ploughs right into the mess. In the space of five seconds, you’re all nothing but tragic headlines on local TV news.

But what if the same scenario had happened in ten years time? When you step out into the road, your phone bleeps an alert and you look up. The approaching car senses you while the driver is still reacting, screeching to a stop while firing an external airbag. The people carrier behind stops automatically, and street lights in the area increase their illumination to warn other road users. You escape with nothing worse than a red face and a story to tell your mates.

Car safety has already improved in leaps and bounds since three-point seatbelts first appeared in the late 1950s. Crumple zones, rearward-facing child seats and pedestrian-friendly bumpers have all reduced road fatalities. But the last few years have witnessed the birth of technologies that not only protect you in a prang, but that prevent you from crashing in the first place. Toyota is so confident in the ability of science to reduce accidents that its Managing Director, Takeshi Uchiyamada, has announced a long-term goal of zero deaths - and even zero accidents - on the road.

That might seem incredible at the moment, when cars kill 10 people every day in the UK, and over a million people each year worldwide. But by creating smarter, more capable cars and road systems, fatal car crashes may one day be as rare as plane crashes are now.

The coming safety revolution features technologies that are active rather than passive. In some recent cars, such as Toyota’s innovative RAV4, almost every system has an awareness of how it should be behaving. Tyres know when they’re slipping, brakes can tell if they’re about to lock up and four-wheel drive systems constantly adjust power to maintain stability.

Toyota is also developing cars that are increasingly aware of the world outside. If one spots a car approaching quickly from behind, it automatically tightens seatbelts in the moments before impact and moves head restraints to minimise whiplash injuries.

Some scientists now think that the cars themselves are almost as safe as they can be. They’re paying more attention to what they call ‘human factors’ and what we (if we’re feeling charitable) call ‘dorky drivers’.

Toyota researchers estimate that 60% of rear-end and head-on collisions, and as many as 80% of accidents involving pedestrians or cyclists, are caused by recognition failures. So it’s official: the roads are full of absent-minded drivers who haven’t got a clue what’s going on around them.

In an effort to reduce these figures, safety experts are loading cars with gadgets that supplement our natural senses. Toyota’s new system augments our puny human vision with a combined millimetre-wave radar and camera system that scans the road ahead and warns of potential collisions. It also boasts a near-infrared Night View camera that can pick out warm humans on dark nights, projecting their image onto a heads-up display.

Dr Andrew Morris of the Vehicle Safety Research Centre at Loughborough University is cautiously optimistic about these developments: “As safety researchers, we support any devices genuinely offering casualty reduction opportunities. However, there’s a possibility that these systems could present insurmountable challenges to certain sectors of the population. For example, older drivers may not adapt to systems that are continually overloading them with information, which they find difficult to process and in turn actually increase the crash risk.”

In fact, why rely on fallible humans at all? The very latest safety gizmos spend as much time monitoring the driver as they do the engine or the road ahead – and have no qualms about taking charge if you’re not up to the job.

Boffins at the Texas Christian University (appropriately enough) have developed an experimental ignition that require a breathalyser test before turning over. Breathe into a tube and if your booze levels are too high, the car won’t start – and can even call the police. Similarly, today’s noisy but ineffectual seat-belt buzzers may be replaced by devices that limit your maximum speed when you’re not buckled up.

The robo-nannies step up a gear once you start driving. Toyota already has a fully working Lane Keeping system that watches the white lines on a motorway. If the system detects you straying from your lane, you’ll be warned briefly then nudged back on track via the power steering. Or when you’re stuck in slow-moving traffic, a tracking radar maintains a safe distance from the car in front, applying the brakes to avoid minor shunts.

But it’s when things go pear-shaped that smart cars really flex their muscles. If, despite the comprehensive traction and stability controls on board, you manage to put some of today’s cleverest cars into a skid, they can activate a special power assist unit to steer you out of trouble.

And perhaps the most Big Brother-ish device is Toyota’s Driver Monitoring System, mounted on top of the steering column in some top-end cars. Using a camera and near-infrared LEDs, this system constantly tracks your head movements. If it decides you’re looking away from the road when a collision threat is detected, the car slams on the brakes itself.

Other, even more outlandish, systems are being trialled, including a device that squirts a tiny splash of water in your face if you nod off at the wheel. The Pod concept vehicle developed by Toyota and Edinburgh-based research lab Affective Media goes one step further still, using biometric voice recognition microphones and pulse meters built into the steering wheel to read your emotions. If it hears foul language and detects sweaty palms, the Pod might play calming music, cool your anger with a blast of air-con, or simply select a less congested route from its sat nav.

But would even such super-intelligent cars herald the end of road accidents? Toyota MD Takeshi Uchiyamada fears not: “According to our simulations, even if all of our current technological ideas were incorporated into every automobile on the roads, the reduction in fatalities would not exceed 60% by the year 2030.”

That’s mainly because cars and drivers just looking out for themselves are never to going to see the bigger picture. To reach the magic goal of zero accidents, says Uchiyamada, requires “proactive measures taken not only toward automobiles, but from the perspective of people and the traffic environment, treating these respective spheres as an inter-related whole.”

In practical terms, that means linking new forms of road-to-car, car-to-car and person-to-car communication into one holistic, fully digital traffic network. Mobile phone networks will send out pin-point accident updates, traffic signals will respond instantly to changing conditions and each car will send and receive speed and position data from the vehicles around it. This process is only just beginning.

Toyota’s Pod concept vehicle can communicate its driver’s emotions to other road users with a display of mood-sensitive lights. There has been work into linking chains of cars into automated (and fuel-efficient) ‘road trains’ on motorways. And the NICTA lab in Australia has created a car that can read road signs, restricting its maximum speed at dangerous junctions or in built-up areas.

If there’s a common thread binding together all these new safety technologies, it’s the steady transfer of responsibility for the safety of the car and its occupants from the human driver to automated systems. It seems that power no longer resides with the people, but with computerised brains beneath the bonnet.

But the question remains whether we’re ready to swap our freedom to drive as we wish for increased levels of safety. Or will the road rage of the future be directed not at other drivers, but at our own vehicles for bossing us around, slowing us down or even reporting us to the police?


Opinion: Intelligent cars

BAD - Monty Watkins, motoring journalist
Get into a modern car, zip up to 70mph, throw it into a corner, stamp on the brakes. You’d have a good chance of getting away with it. Active hydraulic damping counteracts body roll, pitch and yaw. Braking effort is distributed optimally and maximum tyre contact is assured. ABS and traction control can safeguard steering on slippery surfaces. You feel like a cool driver.

If you do lose it, be confident that carbon nano tube crumple zones, honeycomb foam-filled cavities and a flotilla of airbags will give you an astonishingly high chance of limping away. There may even be external curtain airbags, to cushion the pedestrians you’ve just hit. It’s OK, your car has already phoned for help. It’s not a car. It’s a soft cell. Switch off these electronic systems and your coach-and-four is just a pumpkin pulled by large mice.

Car makers don’t really have visions about empty, twisting country roads. They think about traffic. Using the smokescreen term ‘vehicle safety’, they want to create a mobile daisy chain. Relinquish control, hit the green button and let proximity sensors take care of braking distance, GPS decide your route, road sensors manage lane changes and speed. Designers can relax and create heavenly seats, world class pollen filters and gorgeous cup-holders. Remove control from the driver and vehicle dynamics are no longer an issue. Designers are off the hook.

Real car design produces something inherently dynamic. It doesn’t emulate dynamism using mere technology. In the past, the best cars were the best designed cars and good designers were rare. Saved by globally-available electronic short-cuts, the stragglers have now caught up. The consumer chooses between brands rather than designs. It seems quite adequate to emulate the excellence that was once the secret of a gifted few. Jimi Hendrix is dead. Long live the Cheeky Girls.

* Monty Watkins has been ranting about cars for over 20 years, writing for and editing publications ranging from Specialist Sports Car and Fast Ford to MiniWorld and New Mini.

GOOD - Charles Oakley, Director of Vehicle Engineering, TRL
Cars are safer today than they have ever been due to advances in their structural design. However, current crash safety is still focussed on the protection of average-sized people. I believe one of the next great challenges is to extend the protection offered by today’s generation of cars to the whole population. That’s to say, all sizes, ages, genders and conditions of car drivers and passengers. This is achievable with the increased use of electronics and sensors in vehicles, which can provide information to safety systems such as airbags and allow them to change their response in a crash according to how severe the crash is and who is sitting in the seat.

Currently this has only been seen with dual-stage airbags and information on where the person is sitting. But it won’t be long before the safety systems have a wider range of responses and will adapt to personal information about you and how tolerant you are to impact forces. Much of this information would be stored on a smartcard which you would insert into the vehicle before it starts, a technology which is already being used on some vehicles.

I feel we are only a short step away from applying this technology more generally to the vehicle such that it will detect impending impacts using external sensors and communication technology like GPS. The vehicle will then be able to ‘prepare’ itself for an impact by activating its safety systems and maybe even structurally changing so it can cope with the impending accident. Of course, the ultimate development will be for the car to take over control at this point and take avoiding action to prevent the accident entirely, although we cannot expect this until much further into the future.

* The UK’s Transport Research Laboratory provides independent research, consultancy, advice and testing for all aspects of transport, including crash testing and vehicle safety assessment.

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