When Optional Car Safety Features Become Standard We All Win

We might love the vintage Ford Escort. But there’s reason Ford doesn’t make that car any more. New cars have a habit of blowing older cars out of the water. And it’s all to do with the rising tide of technology. Most of us remember a time when air conditioning was an expensive optional extra. Back in the 1980s, you were hard pressed to find a car with air-conditioning as standard. But by around 2001, most major car manufacturers were including it in their regular models. And today, you can find air conditioning in all but the cheapest, nastiest economy cars.

But it’s not just in the comfort department where things have come on leaps and bounds. They’ve also gotten a lot better in the safety department too. Almost every safety feature we think of as being standard today started out life as an optional extra. The seatbelt is a good example. Incredibly, the first ever seat belt only debuted in 1951. It was made by Volvo; now a carmaker venerated for its dedication to driver safety. But it was only a decade later than lawmakers made seatbelts in cars mandatory. Since then practically every other “standard” safety feature has started life as an optional extra. That includes airbags, anti-lock brakes, emergency lights and even electric windscreen wipers.

The best example of the penetration of safety features into the market is probably ESC or electronic stability control. ESC was a system first introduced by Mercedes into its top end models back in 1995. The system was designed to control all four wheels independently to stop the car from getting out of control. Each of the wheels was fitted with sensors. And these sensors fed a central computer information. This computer then used that information to control the speed of the wheels. Hence, Mercedes could avoid skidding and keep drivers on the straight and narrow.

At the time, ESC was a super high tech offering only available on Mercedes cars. But by 2012, it was standard across all new cars in the US. In only 17 years, ESC had gone from luxury automotive technology to ubiquitous necessity.

So the question then becomes, which among today’s high-end safety techs are likely to become mainstream in the future? Right now, there are a lot of optional safety extras that seem quite futuristic. But with the march of progress, we’ll probably see the majority of them in our cars in the next decade. In hindsight, the penetration of ESC into the marketplace might actually look quite slow.

Rearview Back-up Cameras

When rear view cameras were first introduced, many in the automotive press saw them as a bit of a gimmick. After all, drivers can easily use their mirrors or just turn their heads around if they need to. Rear view cameras were seen as a way for companies to include cheap cameras on their cars to help them to sell.

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But since they were introduced, their utility has become apparent to all. The fact of the matter is that drivers don’t have a perfect 360-degree view of the car using their mirrors. But cameras do, and so they offer drivers extra visibility. They’re especially useful for keeping an eye on small children and the neighbour’s pets hiding near the rear bumper.

They’re also suited to larger vehicles where blind spots are much bigger. And so it’s no surprise that the rise of rear-view cameras has accompanied the rise of the SUV. Statistics released by Kids and Car suggest that 50 children a week are hit by cars backing up. And among those 50 incidents, about two are fatal.

Back-up cameras still aren’t standard on the cars we buy. But there is every reason to expect that they will be. Cameras, like other sensors, are coming down rapidly in price year after year. And in a few year’s time, the cost to carmakers of including them will become trivial.

What’s more, cars already have many of the facilities in place that they would need for a rear-view camera. In-car infotainment screens are practically universal today. And so now most cars already have a screen on which a rear-view picture can be displayed. What will likely happen is that rear-view cameras will be lumped in with other infotainment features. And that’s how we’ll see widespread adoption in the marketplace.

Parking Sensors

Parking sensors work by emitting a signal that is then bounced off nearby objects. If it takes a long time for the signal to travel out, hit an object, and travel back, the object is further away.

Parking sensors are optional on most cars. If you want a parking sensor on your new Ford Fusion today, you’ll pay $295 for the privilege.

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Right now parking sensors only appear to be worth the money on high-end models. The Volvo S60 for example comes with parking sensors. So too do the Mercedes-Benz C-Class C300 and the BMW 5 Series 528i.

But just as with cameras, parking sensors are coming down in price. Radar technology used to be frighteningly expensive. But miniaturization is making it a lot cheaper. Once unit prices drop below $100, we’ll start to see sensors turning up on more and more cars.

Forward Collision Avoidance Systems

The aftermath of a car accident can be devastating, both physically and financially. This firm handles it every day. And so often it’s the result of careless driving. That’s why so many car makers are now investing in so-called forward collision avoidance.

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Forward collision avoidance works in a similar way to parking sensors. Radar on the car shoots out a signal, telling the car whether it’s approaching an oncoming car too fast. If it thinks that it is, the car will automatically slam on the brakes.

At the moment radar is still expensive. But in the future, it is hoped that cars will be able to work a little bit more like people. They’ll use cheap cameras for their eyes, and intelligent software for their brains. Computers in the car will be able to tell when to apply the brakes, just using visual data. This should bring costs down substantially.

Whether the technology truly catches on remains to be seen. Right now, a lot of people fancy themselves as great drivers and don’t think they need computers to keep them safe. But data from the Insurance Institute appears to suggest otherwise. Their study found that drivers with collision avoidance made 14 percent fewer claims than those without. Of course, people who chose safer cars might also be safer drivers. But to many, this data suggests that the technology is having a real world effect.

Right now, it seems unlikely that this feature will become standard any time soon. The price is still way too high. But we could see it in the most budget-oriented cars by 2025.

Inflatable Seat Belts

Recently Ford began introducing inflatable seatbelts to some of its larger vehicles. Initially, these seat belts will appear on rear seats only.

But why has Ford decided to pursue this new idea? Well, for one, the company says that inflated seat belts are a lot comfier than the regular variety. And, as we all know, regular seat belts can be a little rough on the skin.

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But the main reason is that they’re much better during an accident. At the moment, regular seatbelts spread the force of a crash over a small area of the body. In children and elderly people, this can cause serious injury. The idea behind the inflatable seat belt is to distribute this force over a wider area. Ford claims that their new seatbelt absorbs the impact over an area that’s five times greater than regular seat belts. This, the company claims, reducing the chance of people suffering an injury.

What’s cool about this inflatable seatbelt idea is that it’s not particularly high-tech. As a result, it shouldn’t take too long for other carmakers to follow suit. Right now, inflatable seat belts are an $195 option on the Ford Flex.

Adaptive Lighting

Finally, there’s one more safety feature we’re likely to see a lot more of soon. It’s called adaptive lighting. And it works a little bit like this.

Let’s say you’re travelling down a country road at night. Suddenly, you come to a sharp, 90-degree bend. Current lights keep shining forward. But ideally, you’d like to be able to see into the bend to know where you’re going. That’s where adaptive lighting comes in. Adaptive lighting reacts to the position of the steering wheel. If the driver is turning the car into a bend, the lights also turn into the bend. This allows the driver to see where they are going.

At the moment, a lot of car manufacturers are experimenting with the technology. Mercedes, Mazda, Volvo and Acura currently offer cars with adaptive lighting.

Again, you wouldn’t expect this type of innovation to have a significant impact on the number of crashes. But the statistics speak for themselves. According to the IIHS, claims among drivers with adaptive headlights are down 10 percent.

But there’s a catch when it comes to adaptive headlight technology. It’s expensive. Right now, carmakers are charging between $850 and $1000 for the system.