PARIS – The European Commission is looking to push vehicle safety to new frontiers.

In a presentation to the Automotive Electronics Congress here, the outgoing chief of the EC’s automotive division, Reinhard Schulte-Braucks, outlines the Commission’s plans for automotive regulation over the next several years that cover safety and emissions.

The rules proposed by the Commission – Europe’s executive branch – must be adopted by the European Parliament, as well.

On safety, the Commission plans to propose groundbreaking rules for the next decade that for the first time will require automotive electronics to take responsibility for driving.

Vehicles will be required to brake if their sensors indicate an accident is unavoidable. Sensor-based emergency braking will be mandatory by 2014 or 2015, predicts Schulte-Braucks, who will take a new job in Europe’s aerospace directorate Jan. 1.

“The details are still under discussion,” he says, but the idea is that if sensors calculate an accident is possible, they deliver a warning to the driver about 2 seconds ahead of time, and at 1.6 seconds from impact, “if there is no reaction from the driver, the car will brake itself.”

Such technology is generally referred to in the industry as active-safety technology or collision-avoidance systems, and major global industry players have begun equipping some vehicles, while others are developing related systems.

The EC’s proposal, much like a regulation proposed this year to require emergency brake assist, is based on reducing the number of accidents with pedestrians, although it would clearly help in other situations as well.

Schulte-Braucks says it would be the first rule that would give authority to the car’s electronic system.

“It’s crossing a line in the sand” to give cars this kind of responsibility, agrees Nick Ford, a consultant who works with Frost & Sullivan in the U.K.

“Until now, the industry and rule makers have wanted to keep drivers’ responsible for driving,” he says. The move to give overriding authority to an electronic system makes sense, “because humans are not very good drivers. We are good at doing many things, but not very good at everything. Electronics can be very good at very specific tasks.”

Volvo Cars’ City Safety low-speed, collision-avoidance system for example, reacts at the last second even if the driver doesn’t, but only in low-speed situations where questions of liability are not likely to be serious, Ford says.

Liability issues will keep such systems rare without legislation to require them, Ford says.

Schulte-Braucks says the Commission won’t go further very quickly in giving authority to the car. “This is only in the case of an accident,” he says. “It is a challenge to keep the driver alert. He can’t rely solely on the electronics.”

The brake-assist function the EC wants to require uses electronics to measure the speed with which the driver moves his foot from the accelerator to the brake pedal, and if it is quick, the system assumes that heavy braking is required.

Accident researchers have found people often don’t brake hard enough, even when they are quick enough.

Ford says 89% of Europeans believe using electronics to improve braking is important or very important. Frost & Sullivan conducted the study in March 2006 with 2,013 Europeans in six countries.

The integration of electronics makes new safety approaches possible, and “the benefit-cost ratio of future measures is likely to be huge,” said Schulte-Braucks.

The integration of electronics makes new safety approaches possible, and “the benefit-cost ratio of future measures is likely to be huge,” Schulte-Braucks says.

Regarding emissions, Euro 5 and Euro 6 rules were adopted in July that further reduce allowable oxides of nitrogen and particulate emissions for cars. They take effect in 2009 and 2014, respectively, while Euro 6 rules for heavy trucks will be presented by the end of the year.

However, Schulte-Braucks says the Commission plans to propose a Euro “5-½” rule regarding onboard diagnostic systems. “We will follow California specifications for onboard diagnostics beginning in 2012,” he says.

European cars for nearly a decade have been required to have an OBD system that alerts the driver with an icon on the instrument panel if the pollution-control equipment is not working properly.

However, when the EC tested cars, it found Europe’s OBD equipment often didn’t work. The new rules would require cars not only to have OBD systems but also that they function properly.

Starting in January, France has added a test of OBD equipment to the compulsory technical inspections of older cars. Schulte-Braucks says the move likely is due to the failure of PSA Peugeot Citroen OBD system in the tests.