VERSAILLES, France – If auto makers don’t make electronic stability control standard equipment on their vehicles by 2012, the European Commission could force the issue.

“Our first approach is to make it voluntary,” EC information society and media commissioner Viviane Reding says during a media event here showcasing active safety technologies. “But, if necessary, we are prepared to make this lifesaving equipment mandatory.”

ESC could help avoid 100,000 vehicle crashes and save 4,000 lives a year, she says.

Europe has set a goal of cutting annual traffic fatalities by 25,000 compared with 2001, when a record 50,396 people died on European roadways. In 2005, the last year for which figures are available, Europe had 41,400 road fatalities.

Reding says the EC is prepared to take a dozen European countries to court if they don’t agree to adopt eCall, an international emergency call system the EC wants installed in all new cars from 2010. The technology could save as many as 2,500 lives a year, she says.

So far, 15 countries have signed up, including Spain, Poland and Czech Republic. France and the U.K. are among the 12 European Union member countries that have not.

The lack of a uniform telephone system across Europe has limited installation of technologies such as General Motors Corp.’s OnStar telematics service.

Reding spoke to reporters at the opening of a 5-day event for Project Prevent, a consortium of auto makers, suppliers, industry associations and researchers. Twenty-five vehicles equipped with lane-departure warning devices, automatic braking, steer-by-wire and other driver-assistance technologies were presented at a test track here outside Versailles. The EC has invested €105 million ($147 million) to co-fund the project.

“Managing European projects has not become easier in the last 20 years,” says Bharat Balasubramanian, DaimlerChrysler AG project chief. “But (it) is worth the effort. Pre-competition research has always been an important driver for technical progress.”

Other auto makers and suppliers involved in the project are Ford Motor Co., BMW AG, PSA Peugeot Citroen, Volvo Cars, Fiat Automobiles SpA, Delphi Corp., Siemens VDO Automotive AG and Robert Bosch GmbH.

One of the most dramatic demonstrations of what active safety technology can do was featured on a Volvo 18-wheel truck equipped with forward-looking sensors. When the system determines a crash is inevitable, the truck automatically applies its brakes with full force in a microsecond.

“We want to develop useful technology that will go on the market as soon as possible,” says Remi Kaiser, president of Delphi’s French unit. “Cooperation is the key to low-cost solutions.”

Kaiser has pushed for any new technology developed by auto makers participating in the project to be given one generic name. Multiple names confuse consumers and delay the take rate of such technologies, he says. Such was the case with anti-skid ESC, which had multiple brand names until recently.

Several project participants shared their view of how far intelligent vehicle systems will go.

“If I am sleepy, I want to tell my car to take me home,” says Siemens VDO researcher Jean-Luc Mate. “The vehicle should be able to sense the environment. The car should not be perceived as a robot, but as a user-friendly companion for mobility. We have to reinvent a personal relationship with mobility.”

DC’s Balasubramanian says the philosophy behind most active-safety technology is to have the driver remain responsible for his vehicle.

“As soon as the driver takes control, the systems are switched off,” he says.

Ultimately, electronic controls will become so reliable that the car can be given some responsibility, he says.