A decade ago when auto manufacturers shifted their focus to active safety systems, industry analysts began extrapolating where this trend could eventually lead. Some began mulling about a day when vehicles and smart transportation systems would handle the vast majority of driving duties. In this scenario, computers would plot out and instigate the safest, most efficient travel plans, potentially eliminating accidents – or, at the very least, seriously diminishing the root causes of most crashes, human error.
Indeed, some very early active safety systems proved their efficacy in taking vehicle control away from the driver – most notably those that, on their own, could cut vehicle power and adjust the brakes in an emergency braking situation.
Ten years down the road, this trend has taken a different turn. Instead of removing driver control, the latest safety systems are geared towards creating better drivers by providing more road information feedback and greater vehicle control.
Let’s take a look at the most significant of these systems and consider how they’ll impact the way your shop handles repairs.
Advanced safety innovations take years of development and a significant investment to bring to market, which is why they typically turn up in luxury models first before they go mainstream. Though other brands have built reputations on providing the best possible driving experience, Mercedes Benz lately has been particularly successful in bringing some of the most compelling, and potentially significant, safety innovations into the auto market.
Three systems use cameras to provide drivers with some extra help when navigating multi-lane roads. Lane Keeping Assist utilizes a special camera that tracks lane markings on pavement. If it senses that a driver is drifting out of a lane, it vibrates the steering wheel.
Adaptive Highbeam Assist uses a dedicated camera to scan the road ahead for the lights of other vehicles. Based on their calculated position, the system varies the headlamps infinitely through an array of light settings (not simply between high and low beams) to maximize illumination without causing glare that can blind other drivers.
Night View Assist PLUS utilizes a camera along with invisible infrared beams to display a supplemental, real-time view of a dark road. If it detects a pedestrian, it can point that person out and even shine the headlamps towards him or her. Unlike thermal systems, it also can sense “cold objects.”
To help drivers gain a clearer view of darkened roadways without a special camera, Mercedes offers Active Full-LED headlamps, which generate light the company says is closer to natural daylight than any lighting technology in production. These headlamps also can instantly reconfigure their beam patterns in response to a driver’s steering and speed and to other traffic.
For potential problems that don’t lie directly ahead, Mercedes’ Blind Spot Assist alerts drivers to vehicles that remain hidden from their side mirrors. This system utilizes radar sensors in the rear bumper to detect vehicles alongside the driver’s. A red icon lights up in the side mirror to alert the driver. Should the driver signal for a lane change, an alert sounds.
Of particular note is a system called Attention Assist, which helps drivers guard against one of the most dangerous hazards on modern roadways – driver fatigue (which studies have shown is potentially as dangerous as driving under the influence).
Attention Assist tracks over 70 parameters in the first minutes of a drive to recognize a motorist’s unique driving style. As a driver spends extended time on a journey, the system detects certain steering corrections that suggest the onset of drowsiness. It also works in consideration of a wide range of other factors, including crosswinds and road smoothness to how often a driver is interacting with the vehicle's controls and switches. If it all adds up to driver fatigue, Attention Assist sounds an alert encouraging the driver to stop and rest.
Certainly, if your shop isn’t certified to repair Mercedes or other luxury brands, you may not see some of this technology for a while. But consider this. Some of the technology these brands began introducing not more than five years ago is already becoming standard equipment elsewhere in the industry.
For example, the 2013 Honda CR-V comes equipped with a rearview camera for safe backing and tracking of activity behind the vehicle.
Mounted on the passenger side of the 2013 Honda Accord EX is a standard blind spot camera that records activity for peripheral areas that are difficult to see properly from the driver’s seat. The camera automatically powers on when the right signal light is activated.
Ford has begun equipping several of its models (including the Flex and Focus) with curve control and torque vectoring technology.
Ford has made torque vectoring technology standard on its Focus models, giving these cars handling capabilities once only available on high performance models.
Ford bills these systems as a “confidence-builder” for novice drivers that also will please driving enthusiasts. What does this technology do? Think of what it would be like to incorporate the curve-cornering skill of a professional skier or snow board-rider into an automobile to provide stability during cornering.
Previously offered only in high-end performance vehicles, this technology is helping make top-heavy vehicles and entry-level cars safer using braking pressure that aids them in navigating turns.
Torque vectoring imitates the effect of limited-slip differential by constantly balancing the distribution of engine output between the front wheels to suit driving conditions. When a motorist accelerates through a tight corner, the system applies what Ford calls an “imperceptible degree” of braking to the inside front wheel, which shifts more engine torque to the outside wheel. The result is noticeably better road grip and improved vehicle handling.
Important here is the fact that the system doesn’t take vehicle control away from the driver. It facilitates stability. According to Ford, its intent also is to improve the driving experience.
Indeed, as safety systems evolve, engineers are looking for ways to fuse safety and enjoyment. Consider an innovation Cadillac is including on most of its 2013 models – a Safety Alert Seat.
This system uses vibrations of the driver’s seat bottom to warn of collision threats while driving and parking. Threats to the sides of a vehicle, such as drifting between lanes or towards objects while parking, produce vibrating pulse patterns on the left or right of the seat (depending upon which side of the vehicle is at risk). Threats from the front and rear trigger pulses on both sides of the seat.
Cadillac incorporated the technology after research indicated that the seat can direct driver attention to the location of a crash threat more quickly and accurately than beeping alerts. The research also showed that drivers sometimes don’t hear audible alerts or use shut-off options to turn them off if they find them to be an annoyance.
Coming soon to a vehicle near you
Additional research is directing automakers to develop technologies to help drivers contend with newer safety concerns and to help them sift more effectively through the information being fed to them through safety systems.
In Europe and Asia, automakers have brought to market technologies to help motorists avoid hitting pedestrians. With more Americans taking advantage of growing numbers of walking and bicycling paths, there’s a good possibility this technology will turn up in the states as well.
Toyota has come up with an interesting piece of technology aimed at keeping pedestrians and bicyclists safer, and it’s aimed directly at the hybrid and alternative fuel market.
Hybrid, electric and other such vehicles can be particularly dangerous since their power plants often make very little noise. Toyota has begun equipping its Japanese models with systems that sound an automated alert when a vehicle approaches someone walking or riding a bike.
All the alerts and information being fed to drivers can themselves be a distraction. With motorists focusing their attention on multiple read outs, along with electronic accessories such as music players, automakers are finding that drivers actually might be spending more time with their eyes on a vehicle’s dashboard and not on the road.
Companies like Honda are now investing in new displays that organize all this information more comfortably and more logically in areas that keep the drivers’ eyes on the road.
Honda is developing technology tagged as heads-up display (HUD), which projects critical navigational and safety information onto the environment the driver views through the windshield. The automaker expects to incorporate HUDs in its vehicles in just the next few years, potentially making their driving experience – and the experience of the motorists around them – far safer.
Obviously, how much safer HUD and similar technology will make roadways and the effects they will have on your business remain to be seen. Jeff Woolcot, a transportation analyst whose family works in the collision industry, doesn’t expect any immediate impact.
Woolcot says that active safety systems, since their inception, have provided a mixed bag of results. On one hand, as the number of vehicles on the road has increased, the number of collisions has either declined slightly or held steady. Roadways are safer, but there still are plenty of accidents, many of them serious.
Woolcot believes there is one major, contributing factor to this phenomenon. As automakers make vehicles more responsive, and ostensibly easier and safer to drive, motorists become more apt to test their limits and get themselves in trouble.
“Drivers never cease to find new ways to do foolish things and crash their cars,” says Woolcot.
Therefore, repairers shouldn’t expect to see a noticeable decline in repair opportunities. Woolcot says what they should expect to find are tougher repair challenges that will come with returning the newest generation of active safety systems to their pre-crash operational abilities.
“Collision shops could be looking at running more electronic diagnostics to make sure all these cameras, sensors and electronics are back up to speed,” he says. “If they’re not, they could be assuming liability for future crashes that drivers and insurers say could have been avoided with properly repaired safety systems.”
Ironically, safer vehicles could pose bigger business risks for shops. Woolcot notes, “This is the future shops will need to prepare for.”