Future of Automotive Safety Stays in the Fast Lane


Following a century of innovation in the automotive safety arena encompassing vehicle structures, higher strength materials, crumple zones, occupant restraints (with the invention of the safety belt and the airbag) and now the exciting developments in active safety there is a broadening horizon for engineers with an eye to the future.

The success of such efforts is nothing less than critical to nations around the world. With more than 1.2 million people reported killed in motor vehicle-related accidents each year and innumerable injuries and cost to society (in many cases the cost of auto accidents in developed countries are around 2 percent of a country’s Gross Domestic Product) the stakes are high.

Electronics – Driving Strides in Auto Safety

The engine fueling safety innovation is electronics – the hardware in the form of electronic control units, sensors and the actuating systems that can react to shifting road and weather conditions, and the software code including the algorithms that are the brains of making these systems work in concert.

The good news – engineers have made remarkable strides in communication protocols, the ability to process on-board data and in sensing technologies that provide more data than ever before. Correspondingly, electronically-controlled systems like electric steering and electronic stability control can react to assist in keeping the vehicle in control both longitudinally and laterally. The combination of such systems has proven to be more effective in reducing stopping distance in cases when road surfaces may include both snow and ice and dry pavement.

Of course the vehicle interior – where people directly interface with the car – is becoming more and more intelligent and interconnected to the environment, infrastructure, and to the mobile devices so popular in today’s world. TRW sees a dual responsibility here. As a safety company how do we help keep people safe while allowing them to stay electronically connected to their world?

Driver distraction has been identified as a major issue. TRW and its Body Control Systems interior control group is continually searching for ways to help – such as the development of ‘touchpad” technology using a surface similar to that in laptops, cell phones, tablets, etc. that can allow drivers to draw a letter or symbol on the touchpad or even phone numbers to allow for a hands free option or to do shortcuts to various systems. For example, you could draw the letter “A” for audio and a set of audio controls could appear in a center console vehicle control area. The touchpads can be placed in any number of areas in the vehicle.

What about cabin comfort? TRW engineers have developed Efficient Climate Control systems that keep the temperature and humidity at the right level and now have developed an industry first dew point sensor that directly measures the cabin air to quickly and accurately determine dew point. The result is improved fog detection and auto-defrost control, allowing the HVAC system to run at a minimum energy level.

And as a pioneer in the development of advanced occupant safety systems TRW is continually looking for ways to further assist occupants in the event of a crash by using seat belt and airbag systems that adjust to the many crash variables such as severity of impact, size of the occupant and more. It is also seeking ways to make it easier to buckle up, such as the active buckle lifter that utilizes a motor to extend the buckle so it is easier to locate and latch, and is working with partners in pioneering new belt concepts such as the web catcher belt system for future commuter vehicle concepts that do not require the occupant to directly buckle their belts.

Active Safety – the New Frontier

Accident avoidance through the use of active safety systems coupled with radar and camera-enabled environmental sensing is an area of focus for suppliers, vehicle manufacturers and governments alike. Advancements also continue to be made in occupant restraints and seat belt and airbag systems that are continually being tuned to be more responsive to the variables of a crash. With many cars now sold having between 6 and 10 airbags there will reach a point of saturation, and of course avoiding the accident or at minimum mitigating it is preferred.

As integrated systems become more prevalent they are also reaching higher levels of sophistication. One trend is a preference for active assist versus pure warning systems. Lane Keeping Assist as opposed to Lane Departure Warning is a good example whereby an assist system provides a driver recommendation through a torque in the steering wheel to assist the driver in intuitively steering back to the center of a lane when they have inadvertently crossed the lane marking (the torque can always be overcome by the driver). In Lane Departure Warning systems drivers only receive a warning through a flashing light or beep and must decide on their own how to react. Taking Lane support a step further are Lane Centering Assist and Lane Guidance systems that constantly use corrections to keep the vehicle in the center of the lane – a step on the road to autonomous driving.

Camera systems are excellent in their ability to sense laterally and in a wider field of view and are thus ideal to assist in low speed urban environments in recognizing objects and even pedestrians and assisting drivers to be aware and even braking for them to avoid or mitigate accidents. Cameras also enable further functions like traffic sign recognition that can help drivers to be aware of impending stop signs or to slow down if they are exceeding the speed limit.

However, in higher speed situations and in the longitudinal plane radar systems are excellent in their ability to directly measure speed and distance through Doppler technology – and radar is unaffected by weather and light conditions which can be an issue with camera and lidar technologies. Thus for a system like automatic emergency braking at higher speeds the best solution is to have both a radar and camera which can independently sense an object, and data can be compared between the two to confirm that the brakes may need to be autonomously applied if a driver is not reacting. This data comparison is called data fusion that is performed within an on-board electronic control unit that is monitoring the vehicle information network.

Advanced and Affordable

To have a true impact on the challenges of global road safety advanced systems must be driven to mass market adoption more quickly. The challenge is to add the remarkable functionality you can get from an onboard camera or radar while making the system affordable enough for the average consumer.

Government regulation and stimulation will continue to play a role in developed and emerging markets. As systems prove their effectiveness in accident reduction the typical pattern is regulatory action in the developed markets followed by adoption in emerging markets that closely mimic the established regulatory rules in the western markets.

A Look to the Future

What might a vehicle’s safety equipment look like in a decade or two? 360 degree sensing – perhaps in the form of radar antennas placed strategically around the vehicle – will provide data to a central safety control module – this available environmental data will help onboard actuation systems to react – both in potentially dangerous road and weather conditions or loss of vehicle control, but also in assisting the driver in everyday challenges like compensating for side winds or wheel slip due to slippery surfaces. The car will not yet drive for you and no system can overcome the laws of gravity – but the level of sophistication and support will be significantly enhanced.

Whatever the short and long term future of personal mobility looks like it is a certainty that the engineering of ever more sophisticated safety products for vehicles will continue. The need for mechanical, electrical and software engineers is continuing to increase as the automotive industry here in North America makes a comeback, and markets like China, Brazil and India continue to grow rapidly. The desire to help keep vehicles safe is greater than ever before and the tools at hand continue to advance – keeping safety in the fast lane for the foreseeable future.

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