The only thing in the auto industry moving faster than Memorial Day formula cars on the oval at Indianapolis Speedway are the changes emerging in auto safety technology. Some of the changes are improvements on features that have been around for decades; others may have existed in the world of science fiction, but increasingly sophisticated technology is making them reality.
For used car buyers, knowing what a car’s safety features are can be tricky. Do all vehicles have electronic stability control? Seat belts, of course, but do they have pretensioners? Load limiters? And the rearview mirrors. How much of available technology do they take advantage of?
A little bit of information goes a long way in helping you sort out the features buyers encounter. So let’s take a look at long-standing and emerging safety technologies, and take a peek at the future—just for fun.
Featured image by Brady Holt.
Safety You Expect
Unless you’re in the classic car market, you can reasonably expect to find some iteration of seat belts, air bags, and rearview mirrors on nearly all cars. Here’s what to watch for.
- Seat belts: These have been a common safety feature on most autos since the 1950s. Seat belts have gone through several changes over the years, including becoming automatic and even inflatable. Neither of these are no longer in favor. More-modern cars’ belts have pretensioners. These were introduced in 1981 and tighten the belts to the body in the event of a crash, holding the occupant tightly in the seat. Also on newer models are load limiters, which control the amount of pressure applied to the body in the event of a crash.
- Air bags: Next to seat belts, air bags are the most ubiquitous passenger safety feature on automobiles. Standard on all cars since 1998, and light trucks since 1999, the air bag has grown from a driver protection to a system that can contain up to eight different bags, including side, head, curtain, and passenger to name a few. You should also know about the type of deployment. Dual-depth passenger side air bags adjust for a number of variables including girth and whether the seat belt is locked. Dual-stage airbags sense the severity of the crash and deploy either fully or at 70 percent.
- Rearview mirrors: Perhaps you don’t immediately think of your rearview mirrors as safety equipment. But these are becoming increasingly important. Check your used car to see if the mirror is anti-glare and/or automatic dimming. Anti-glare mirrors allow you to slightly tip the mirror up or down to limit the glare from cars trailing you. Automatic dimming uses light sensors to accomplish the same result. Also, in newer used cars, cameras on rear view mirrors are becoming more prevalent as a means of improving the driver’s ability to see when backing up.
Newer Features Coming Online
Computer technology, lasers, and other sensor types are at the cutting edge of car safety, and for newer model used cars you shouldn’t be surprised to see many of these features available. Star Trek-ish these features aren’t, but you can see the Starship Enterprise from where we’re standing. The real question is, do they work? Research is inconclusive on some of these, but we’re learning more. (See the following section.)
- Adaptive Headlights: Anyone who has driven on a winding road at night knows that your headlights do a great job of illuminating trees as you turn, but not so great a job lighting the road. Adaptive headlights turn with the car, keeping the road in front of you clearly in view. Availability has been on selective models until recently. They are becoming more common, with studies showing their effectiveness in crash avoidance. Will probably be a standard feature soon.
- Adaptive Cruise Control: On open roads with no traffic, cruise control is great. But watch out if a driver slows. Adaptive cruise control will watch for you, using lasers to track the speed of cars in front of you and adjust your speed so you don’t creep too close. Becoming more popular on newer models and often bundled with other crash-avoidance technology. Will become standard soon as it’s a key component of self-driving cars.
- Forward Collision and Avoidance Mitigation: A number of car companies in recent years have introduced systems that sense when you are coming too close to another car and will signal you to adjust. Forward collision and avoidance mitigation is composed of two systems (Dynamic Brake Support and Crash Imminent Breaking) that takes this a step further. DBS will assess when you are too close to a car and, if necessary, apply additional pressure to your brake pedal to avoid the crash. CIB, on the other hand, takes over the car’s breaking if the driver fails to react. Available on selective models but beginning to appear more broadly. Will become standard in years to come as a key component of self-driving cars.
- Backup Camera: Anyone who backs out of crowded parking lots or onto busy city streets or near small children and pets knows how nerve-wracking it can be. A backup camera allows the driver to see, literally, what is behind him. Hailed as a major step forward in avoiding accidents with other cars and, worse, pedestrians. Popular in recent models and will become more-so.
- Sideview Assist: This system sees where your mirrors can’t—your blind spot—and alerts you to a car next to you. Newer technology with more studies required to know how effective it is.
- Electronic Stability Control: A proven and effective technology for keeping a car from spinning out of control when the driver takes a turn too fast and begins to lose control of the steering. This technology is becoming standard on today’s higher-end cars and will soon be widely available because of its proven effectiveness.
- Lane Departure Warning and Lane Keeping Support: Another computer-aided technology using lasers and cameras to alert a driver about an unintended lane shift. LDW will warn the driver, LKS will automatically take control if the driver doesn’t respond. Still relatively new and limited to higher-end cars. More studies are required to determine effectiveness.
- Parking Assistant: Will parallel park the car without your having to touch the steering wheel. Just plain fun for those who struggle with parallel parking (and even those who don’t). Becoming more popular.
- Automatic Crash Notification: Instantly alerts first-responders that a crash has occurred and provides critical information. Has become common on cars and is highly likely to become standard in coming years.
Looking into the future
All these advances in safety are tied to some coming changes in cars that 20 years ago would have seemed, and been, impossible. Namely smarter cars that continue to remove human judgment from the driving process. Among the more interesting possibilities are these:
Air bags that stop cars. Yep, you read that right. Companies are experimenting with air bags that deploy under the car to raise it off the road, thereby reducing collision impact and enabling the driver to maintain control of the car. And if that weren’t interesting enough, how about air bags on the outside of cars? Car sensors are becoming better equipped to see an accident coming. Deploying an air bad around the car seconds before the crash would significantly diffuse energy and reduce damage to car and passengers.
Energy-storing body panels may be the solution to batteries in hybrid cars. That’s the bet some manufacturers are making by experimenting with panels that can capture, hold, and convert energy from direct current or regenerative breaking to keep your hybrid lighter and running longer.
All of this is pointing, eventually, to a car that drives itself. Prototypes are being tested, such as the Google car. We’re a long way from this, so don’t hang up your leather gloves just yet. There’ll always be a place on the road for the driving enthusiast. But thanks to this push, we’ll all be a lot more safer on the roads.