From Charlie Chaplin getting caught in the gears of progress in the 1936 movie “Modern Times,” to auto workers fearing job losses to robots in the 1980s, mankind has dreaded giving machines too much control over our daily lives.
Just recently, editorial writers fretted about investment banks and hedge funds using artificial intelligence to automatically buy and sell large blocks of stock using something called high-frequency algorithmic trading.
Thankfully, one issue no longer causing much trepidation is the concept of allowing electronic safety systems to momentarily take control of a vehicle when drivers are doing dumb things behind the wheel, such as falling asleep or texting.
For years, auto makers have been reluctant to move forward, wringing their hands over cost and product-liability concerns and worries about how consumers would react to vehicles intervening automatically while they are driving.
But now, thanks to a growing number of government safety mandates and lower costs for sensing technologies, the auto industry is moving full speed ahead to introduce a variety of active safety systems on an increasingly broad spectrum of vehicles, from heavy trucks to family cars such as the newTaurus.
Some actually brake the vehicle to avoid or minimize a collision. The latest systems can even tug the steering wheel to keep a vehicle from running off the road or veering out of its lane.
Such aggressive active-safety systems promise to take center stage as the auto show season begins in Frankfurt this month.
Auto makers and suppliers such asAG, Automotive, Inc., Robert GmbH and others will be touting their technologies throughout the new model year as they try to jump-start consumer interest in new vehicles.
Now that “cash for clunkers” incentives have expired in most global markets, sophisticated new safety features may be one of the most compelling arguments for convincing wary consumers to trade in their current vehicle for a new one.
Achieving the highest level of safety is the main reason D. Barry Bronstein, a music industry executive based in New York City, now is shopping for a new car.
He says active safety is the No.1 factor in his new-car purchase decision. “I will not consider purchasing a new car that does not have all the latest active-safety features,” Bronstein tells Ward's in an email.
Far from being suspicious of this new technology, Bronstein embraces it and wants the most aggressive systems available.
“These systems kick in and take action in those situations where the driver should already have started such action but has failed to do so. Once the driver does take action, I believe the systems give control back,” he says.
Bronstein is looking to replace his '04 Mercedes E320 sedan with a '10 Mercedes E350 once he is convinced it has the most advanced safety. However, he's investigating the possibility that the '11 Infiniti M luxury sedan might have even more assertive safety features.
“There is clearly a need and demand for advanced safety technology,” says Amrei Drechsler, vice president-advanced driver assistance systems,Chassis & Safety Div. “Our goal is to provide the most advanced and effective safety innovations possible.”
Continental recently invited journalists to its North American headquarters in Auburn Hills, MI, to test a long menu of devices it offers, including adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, blind-spot detection and “ContiGuard,” a central control unit that calculates the probability of an accident and initiates a response that can prevent it or minimize the consequences.
For instance, if a crash is probable, the system pre-charges the brakes, cinches up seatbelts, positions the seat, closes the windows and prepares the airbags for optimal deployment.
In addition to supplying active-safety systems on high-end vehicles such as the Mercedes S-Class and new E-Class, Continental also provides a lower-cost closing-velocity sensor and electronic braking system for the City Safety system, standard on the new $33,000 Volvo XC60.
At speeds below 20 mph (32 km/h) the Volvo sensor uses three infrared beams projected from a radar module near the rear-view mirror to probe the road up to 20 ft. (6 m) in front of the vehicle. If the system senses an imminent collision with another vehicle or pedestrian, it will automatically apply the brakes to minimize the impact or avoid the collision altogether.
Unlike some other systems, Volvo City Safety operates only at low speeds because of the limited scanning ability of the lower-cost sensor. Volvo is quick to point out most accidents occur in the city, at low speeds, making the system highly cost-effective.
Active-safety features that use various types of radar sensors to detect vehicles in a driver's blind spot are becoming a common option on luxury and near-luxury vehicles. So are cameras that detect when a vehicle is drifting from its lane.
Systems that actually activate the brakes as part of adaptive cruise control also have been available for several years on luxury-car flagships such as the Mercedes S-Class, which has a base price of about $90,000.
What's new is the most sophisticated intervention systems now are moving into less costly vehicles such as the $48,000 '10 Mercedes E-Class or even the Volvo XC60. And now these systems are headed further down market, into mainstream vehicles.
How far automatic intervention systems will move down the automotive food chain remains unclear, but auto makers such asMotor Co. are intent on offering as much technology as possible on high-volume cars and trucks.
“Our goal at Ford is to do something we call ‘democratizing safety.’ We don't think safety should just be for the high-end luxury vehicles. We think it should be for all vehicles,” says Mike Shulman, technical leader-research and advance engineering at Ford.
“Let's put it on a Fusion; let's put it on Focus. We're trying to put more active safety on every vehicle. Part of it is the cost of the sensors coming down, but Ford actually is driving the supply base to tell them that's where we want to go,” Shulman says.
Industry insiders say one of the major tipping points for active safety was when electronic stability control proved its ability to reduce rollovers and other serious crashes by sensing a problem and then automatically braking individual wheels to bring a vehicle back under control.
Government regulators and the insurance industry were skeptical of the benefits of conventional antilock brakes because their benefit did not show up in crash data, mainly because too many drivers did not understand how to take advantage of the electronic braking aid by holding the pedal down and steering out of trouble while braking.
Instead, many drivers lift their foot off the brake pedal when they feel the characteristic pulsing of the ABS system, and sometimes make the crash even worse.
However, ESC, which uses most of the same components as ABS but requires minimal intervention from the driver, has demonstrated stunning results.
Studies by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found ESC reduced fatal single-vehicle crash risk 51% and fatal multiple-vehicle crash risk 20% for cars and SUVs.
ESC effectiveness in preventing rollovers reduces the risk of fatal single-vehicle rollovers 72% for SUVs and 63% for cars. If all vehicles were equipped with ESC, as many as 9,000 fatal crashes could be avoided each year in the U.S., the IIHS says.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. estimates installation of ESC reduces single-vehicle crashes of cars 26% and single-vehicle crashes of SUVs 48%. NHTSA estimates ESC has the potential to prevent 64% of car rollovers and 85% of SUV rollovers that would otherwise occur in single-vehicle crashes.
This powerful data has emboldened regulators in most major industrialized countries to encourage or mandate more active safety devices, giving the technology a big boost.
NHTSA has mandated ESC in light vehicles by 2012. Western Europe has issued a similar mandate and timeframe.
The National Transportation Safety Board also has made recommendations to NHTSA for wider deployment of technologies such as adaptive cruise control and collision-warning systems in the U.S. for both light-duty and commercial vehicles.
In 2011, NHTSA will implement a new ratings program that will list the presence of select advanced technologies including ESC, lane-departure warning and forward-collision warning.
The European Union wants a 50% reduction in highway fatalities through its safety initiatives, with a particular focus on active-safety technologies. The U.S. and other major industrialized countries have not set official targets, but they are working on them, knowledgeable sources say.
Alois Seewald, global director-research and development for steering and suspension at, points out there are environmental and demographic reasons for enhanced active-safety systems as well, such as acute congestion on the world's roads and the increasing number of older drivers in major industrialized countries.
Seewald says there is growing interest worldwide in TRW's 24 GHz AC100 radar system, which can be used for a variety of devices, including collision warning, urban safety, and follow-to-stop adaptive cruise control.
The 24 GHz system has the same functionality as TRW's 77 GHz system currently in production but is significantly less expensive.
Two years ago, a disastrous truck accident in Europe spurred legislation mandating the use of automatic emergency braking and lane-departure warning systems in heavy trucks by 2013.
Seewald says this new law in Europe is generating interest in the benefits of active safety not only for heavy trucks, but passenger vehicles as well.
New automotive electronics protocols and architectures such as Autosar and FlexRay are allowing engineers to network components, cameras and sensors and further reduce costs, says Dan Milot, chief engineer-advanced control systems new products at TRW.
The migration from hydraulic to electric power-steering systems is providing another benefit: TRW connected the power-steering motor it supplies on the Lancia Delta car in Europe to its lane-departure warning system to create a lane-keeping assist feature that actually tugs the steering wheel to stay within the proper lane.
That's a feature being tested by numerous auto makers and suppliers.
Many other opportunities are available in the future for even more enhancements, such as tying safety into global positioning systems so navigation devices can warn of a dangerous curve ahead. Vehicles also will have the ability to communicate electronically with each other to provide information on traffic and road conditions.
When pestered by reporters with questions about the myriad future possibilities for active safety, Continental's Drechsler shows some frustration.
“We have so much technology now,” she says. “It's important to get this stuff integrated into vehicles first.”