Tomorrow's Cars Will Brace For Impact

This car did not have any side-impact protection system. (Image credit: Faurecia)

You see something coming toward you, so you flinch, tightening your muscles to absorb the impact. What if your car could do the same thing — especially against side impacts, where there's typically no air bag protection?

Researchers in Europe have found a way to design cars that can anticipate impacts, but flinch-power is several years away from showing up in the family car.

Two technologies

The research is part of a project funded by the European Union called APROSYS (Advanced Protection Systems) aimed at cutting the rate of traffic fatalities. The car-flinching system, or "intelligent side-impact protection system," involves two technologies, Dieter Willersinn of the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany told LiveScience.

First is a system of computer-controlled stereo cameras and radar proximity detectors that scan the car's environment and can decide (at least a fifth of a second before impact) if something is about to hit the car.

The system can distinguish between objects that are moving (such as other cars) and stationary objects (such as trees) that only seem to be moving because the car is in motion, Willersinn said.

Once the system decides that a side impact is imminent, the second technology kicks in. A spring-loaded steel bolt built into the seat is released and wedges itself against a metal box that springs into position in the door.

3.5 extra inches

Field tests demonstrated that the system could reduce the depth to which the body of the car was smashed during a side impact by 9 centimeters, or about 3.5 inches, Willersinn said.

If that doesn’t seem like much, consider this: It's about the width of your ankle. If the side of your car caves in enough to occupy the space taken by your ankle, that's very bad news.

Willersinn also noted that the reduced intrusion would make other safety systems, especially air bags, more effective. But the impact speed at which you can expect to emerge unharmed will still involve numerous factors, including the make of car you're in, Willersinn said.

He noted that the project was applied research rather than product development, meaning that the results will probably not show up in new cars for another five years or so. When they do, they will probably be combined with other safety systems, Willersinn said.