Toyota's recent troubles with sticking accelerators in many of its vehicles and braking issues in its flagship Prius gas-electric hybrid could leave you wondering how safe your next new car will be, whether Toyota-made or otherwise.
According to Cars.com Senior Editor Joe Wiesenfelder, electronic advancements that are now commonplace, such systems to prevent a vehicle's wheels from locking up while braking, have already done a great deal to improve road safety, and more recent advancements are only making cars safer.
"Other [technologies] that also help include radar-based collision-warning and collision-mitigation systems, the latter found on the Acura RL and a couple other luxury cars," Wiesenfelder told TechNewsDaily.
Many cars also have systems in place to monitor blind spots and lane departure warnings that alert drivers when they are drifting outside of their lanes, Wiesenfelder added.
More high-tech safety applications are on the way.
Like the lane-departure warnings, Volvo's Pedestrian Safety system, rolling out first with the company's redesigned 2011-model S60, incorporates cameras and computers, but it can also do much more than warn drivers.
The safety feature uses a camera mounted near the top of the windshield that, in tandem with an on-board computer, recognizes pedestrians and cyclists in front of the vehicle, and can automatically bring the car to a halt before an accident occurs, even if the driver fails to hit the brake pedal at all.
The system has a 45-degree viewing angle, will scan 160 feet (49 meters) ahead, and can recognize up to 64 people at once. The S60 will assess collision probability based on the direction of the vehicle and the predicted path pedestrians take. Engineers are also working on improving the system to detect animals.
The Pedestrian Safety system does have limitations, though. It doesn't work while the vehicle is backing up, and due in large part to the laws of physics, if the vehicle is moving faster than about 15 miles per hour it likely won't be able to stop quick enough to avoid a collision entirely.
If you're intrigued by this feature but don't see yourself driving a Volvo, Mobileye, the Dutch company that makes the computer controls and cameras in Volvo's system, is also working with several other automakers, including General Motors and BMW, according to a recent report in the New York Times.
And if you're worried about a computer having total control over when your car stops, the automatic braking can be overridden when it begins engaging, either by quickly turning the steering wheel left or right, or by hitting the gas pedal when the vehicle begins to brake.
But computer-aided safety systems can't solve all the problems facing car-makers in the future.
"Improved materials will be required to prevent vehicle safety from moving backward," said Wiesenfelder. "The fuel economy imperative absolutely calls for lighter vehicles, and higher-strength steels and other materials are among the steps that will reduce mass without sacrificing strength and impact protection."
Those lighter, higher-strength materials are becoming a reality, thanks to the work of researchers such as Afsaneh Rabiei, an Associate Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at North Carolina State University.
Rabiei has created a high-strength, lightweight, composite metal foam that could one day be placed in car bumpers to reduce or eliminate injuries from collisions. Made of metal spheres surrounded by a metal matrix, the material is said to absorb seven or eight times the energy of similar metal foam materials that lack a uniform cell structure.
In a recent article posted on the National Science Foundation's website, Rabiei said that if a car bumper were retrofitted with her material, an accident happening at 28 mph would feel, to a person inside the vehicle, as if it were happening at just 5mph.
Other industries are also interested in Rabiel's metal foam. The material shows potential for military troop protection, airplane construction, and may even be used to add earthquake protection to historic buildings. One last benefit of this metal foam material: It doesn't require complex materials or cutting-edge metal facilities to manufacture. Rabiei says a simple furnace, a mold, and a hot press are all that is required.
Despite these and other advances, Wiesenfelder said fear of advanced technology and simple fiscal reality may be the two largest roadblocks keeping tomorrow's cars from being as safe as they could be.
"I believe... widescale [adoption of] collision-avoidance systems, much less an automated highway system, are out of reach," said Wiesenfelder. "There’s just no money for the infrastructure and onboard technology, especially when drivers remain leery of relinquishing control of their cars."
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