DETROIT – Vehicle safety is becoming more important part to the sales pitch for auto makers and dealers, says a panel held at the Ward’s Auto Interiors Show here.

Ten years ago, Asian premium brands made quality the main selling feature, but as the quality gap among brands continues to narrow, the focus is turning to safety.

“Safety will be the next great product differentiator,” Daniel Johnston product communications director for Volvo Cars North America LLC, says. “The race is on for the next great safety feature, the Holy Grail that will pit one brand against another.”

OEMs and suppliers are focusing on two areas: driver assistance systems that help avoid accidents and pre-crash preparation of the vehicle if an accident is imminent.

Ralf Voss, senior executive vice president for Hella KgaA Hueck & Co.’s electrical and electronics division, says his company likes to think of it as creating a “cocoon” for the vehicle.

Hella is working on integrating lighting, camera, infrared and radar technology to create that cocoon. Future applications include a lane departure warning camera; a high-beam select system and a night vision device scheduled for 2009; and a traffic-sign recognition system slated for 2010.

Helmut Wodrich, chief operating officer for Valeo Raytheon Systems Inc., says the goal is to create a sixth sense for safety. But what ultimately is important is the driver experience, he says. Driver assistance systems that incorporate pre-danger alerts will increase driving satisfaction in the future, he believes. Consumers are starting to ask for products that help with safety, he says Valeo’s research shows blind spot detection the customers’ “most desirable feature.”

Valeo’s lane change assistance system uses two radar sensors connected to two LED (light emitting diode) indicators mounted to the side rear-view mirrors that provide blind-spot warnings that are “natural” and “unobtrusive,” Wodrich says.

“We put it on the mirrors because we’re trying to reinforce right behavior,” he says. “The question is, how to avoid customer overload?”

Voss agrees, noting such products “should not be annoying. What the customer does not want is more information,” he says.

Hella brought in customers to evaluate different types of warning systems that incorporated audio, visual and vibration alerts. The vibration alerts proved to be the most popular because “drivers didn’t want their wives knowing how bad they were driving,” Voss says.

The challenge is how to sell these new systems to the customer. While car buyers are more aware of safety issues, primarily because of advertising, “the trick will be if consumers move safety up in their purchase decision rationale,” Johnston says.

Volvo long has been considered a leader in vehicle safety. It was one of the auto maker’s guiding principles established in 1927 by founders Assar Gabrielsson and Gustaf Larsson, who said, “The basic principle for all manufacturing is and must remain safety.”

But other brands are beginning to catch up, Johnston says.

Steve Keyes director, public communications for Volkswagen AG, says Brian O’Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, changed the industry’s thinking on whether safety sells several years ago, when he negotiated a deal with NBC’s newsmagazine show Dateline to allow the program to air segments featuring car crashes and the effect on safety.

“That changed the equation – taking safety from the product brochures and putting it front and center on national TV,” Keyes says. “So we asked the question, ‘How do we take advantage of this?’”

Volkswagen highlighted its safety features when it launched the new Beetle in 1998. Most recently, it has grabbed the attention of the advertising community with a series of controversial ads featuring a Jetta getting into a collision and showing occupants’ heads actually hitting the airbags.

Keyes admits the ads are both jarring and sensational, but with almost every auto maker touting safety today, Volkswagen thought it was an effective way to cut through the advertising clutter.

“Our dealers were telling us the ads were generating traffic,” Keyes says. “People were coming in wanting to buy the Jetta because of the safety.”

In addition, Volkswagen ran an online campaign that lets visitors configure and crash their own Jettas.

“Safety does attract people to the showroom, so it is important,” says Keyes.

One challenge is educating dealers so they can sell the systems or products to the consumer. Keyes says dealership training is difficult and ongoing, primarily because of the turnover of sales people in the stores.

“We often go back to a dealership two or three months after the initial training and find 50% of the sales staff is new,” Keyes says.

“It is a problem for suppliers also,” Wodrich says. “It is important to have systems that are easily demonstrated to the customer.”