Dinah Eng is an award-winning journalist and syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service.
When a Seat Belt Just Isn't Enough
A number of breakthrough safety features in autos will hit the road in 2005, giving you a range of options to keep you safe.
September 1, 2004
These days, safety is one of the top factors consumers are likely to consider when shopping for a new car—whether they’re looking for a minivan, sporty convertible, or SUV. For real estate professionals, who spend much of their time on the road, the need for safety in cars is even more critical.
Luckily, auto manufacturers and their engineers are responding with an assortment of new safety technologies. Some reduce the likelihood of an accident, while others improve your odds of surviving one. For practitioners, the new automotive safety features coming down the pike will mean a safer work day spent in the car.
Here are some of the breakthrough features you can expect to see in the upcoming 2005 model-year:
- Lane-Change Detection. Infiniti’s next-generation M45 will serve as a safety showcase. The sedan—which debuts in mid-model-year—will boast several notable features, including the world’s first Lane Departure Warning system. The system uses speed sensors, down-facing cameras mounted in each side-view mirror, and smart software to alert drivers when they drift out of lanes without signaling.
- No More Blind Spots. An even more sophisticated system is expected to show up later on one or more Volvo products. It will use a similar camera system to detect when another vehicle is in your blind spot—a frequent cause of freeway accidents.
Loss of Control Correction. Infiniti’s M45 also will feature a technology dubbed “Pre-Safe.” Should onboard sensors determine the likelihood the driver has lost control, the vehicle will instantly and automatically prepare for a crash, moving seats into their safest, most upright position, closing windows to prevent a passenger ejection, and tightening seatbelts to prevent injuries.
Pre-Safe actually debuted on the Mercedes-Benz S-Class a couple years ago. Safety technology is quickly coming down in price, which means sophisticated, high-line systems are migrating from luxury to mainstream products.
- Smarter Airbags. Honda’s a case in point. The Japanese automaker intends to make a variety of advanced safety technologies—ranging from stability control to rollover airbags—standard on virtually all of its models by 2006. With the exception of a few specialty vehicles, such as the Acura NSX and Honda S200, all Honda vehicles will be equipped with standard side airbags for the front seat, side curtain airbags, and ABS brakes. In addition, all Honda and Acura light trucks, including the next-generation Odyssey minivan, will add a stability-control system, as well as rollover sensors which can trigger the side curtain airbags to deploy for up to six seconds.
- Computer Control Systems. Some of the most innovative new safety features fall into a category automotive engineers like to call “mechatronics,” a fusion of mechanics, electronics and breakthrough software technologies. Sophisticated microcomputer control systems make it possible to advance the safety of even the most basic parts of an automobile, such as brakes and steering, and make airbags deploy more effectively.
Better Structures. Honda also is phasing in a new concept it calls the Advanced Compatibility Engineering, or ACE, body structure. By using ACE, the 2005 Acura RL will better manage crash forces, particularly when vehicles of different types, such as a full-size pickup truck and a small car, collide.
Future models also will integrate design features meant to minimize injuries to pedestrians, says Charlie Baker, vice president of Honda’s research and development, such as deformable hood mounts and breakaway wipers.
Electronics can’t do everything, stresses Anna Kretz, a vehicle line executive at General Motors. “The extensive use of high-strength steel is behind many structural (safety) enhancements,” Kretz says.
- Safer Tires. Tire manufacturers continue to improve vehicle grip, even on the most wet and icy roads with the introduction of more sophisticated rubber compounds. But the tire shows how even the most mundane automotive components can be made safer with the use of electronics. A wide range of 2005 automobiles—such as the Nissan 350Z and Cadillac CTSv—will feature tire pressure monitoring systems. At their most basic, these devices will alert the driver when a tire slips below a safe threshold. The more sophisticated versions, like the one on Cadillac’s high-performance sedan, constantly read out the pressure in each individual tire.
- Rollover Protection. Little things count when you’re moving a 4,000- or 5,000-pound mass of steel, glass, and rubber at freeway speeds. Infiniti’s QX56 boasts a new rollover protection system, while Ford has developed a special, energy-absorbing steering column for the new Freestyle that delivers an extra margin of safety on top of that provided by the crossover/wagon’s airbag system.
Windows and Sunroofs. Chrysler’s two new midsize models, the Chrysler 300C and Dodge Magnum, introduce auto-reversing sunroofs that can detect and prevent injuries should they detect anything from a finger to a child’s head when they begin to close.
Both Chrysler and Ford have begun switching to flush-mounted window switches. Old-style toggles could inadvertently be triggered by a small child kneeling or standing on a door’s armrest, resulting in injuries and even death. The new designs are virtually impossible to close unintentionally.
Cell Phone Safety. It’s been more than a year since New York State banned drivers from using handheld cell phones. A number of municipalities across the country have followed suit. Whether cell phones really pose a safety threat remains under debate. But there’s little doubt that distracted drivers cause countless accidents each year.
The new Volvo S40’s Intelligent Driver Information System is designed to monitor a driver’s actions and, if conditions are difficult, divert an incoming cell phone call to voicemail. The system also can divert other distractions, such as the “Check Engine” light.
- Warning Systems. You don’t have to be moving fast to get into trouble. Today’s big SUVs, pickups, and minivans can pose serious visibility issues, especially when you’re backing out of your driveway. Radar and sonar-guided warning systems will be surprisingly common on the 2005 models, such as Ford’s Freestar minivan. Infiniti’s big QX56 goes one better. The full-sized SUV adds a rear-mounted camera, its image appearing in the big LCD monitor otherwise used by the vehicle’s navigation system.
And while you might debate the merits of lumping it into the safety category, Acura’s new RL sedan adds the world’s first real-time traffic alert system this year. The technology actually was developed by XM, one of two satellite radio services. It will monitor road conditions in roughly 20 major U.S. markets, posting instant alerts on the RL’s navigation screen, and offering speedy detours. The technology will be introduced on the Cadillac CTS later in the 2005 model-year. And other automakers are looking to follow.
Safety is an ongoing process. A recent study by the Society of Automotive Engineers found that, “After the perennial top concern over cost reduction, safety is rated as the No. 1 challenge among automotive engineers to stay competitive in the design of the next generation of motor vehicles.” According to the study, automotive engineers are focusing on several key areas:
- At the top of the list is crash-avoidance technology designed to prevent an accident in the first place
- Improved airbags and seatbelts rank nearly as high on the industry wish list.
- There’s growing emphasis on vehicle designs and technology meant to reduce pedestrian injuries.
- And even more sophisticated control systems will help a driver maintain control of a vehicle, even under the worst road conditions.
There was a time when it took Washington regulators to mandate better automotive safety systems. Not anymore. Motorists have come to expect the best products the industry can design. And the cars coming to market in 2005 will be the safest yet.
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