The electronically controlled safety innovations in modern vehicles play a key role in preventing accidents. These systems provide proper braking and steering, good night vision, better traction, blind-spot detection, tyre inflation data, and numerous other protective measures.
But while these technologies save lives, other technologies put lives in danger. Figures from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show that electronic devices were involved in 47,000 crashes related to driver distraction in 2012.
Every year, 1.3 million people are killed and 50 million injured on the world’s roads. In a perfect world, car makers would build vehicles that never crash or kill their occupants or anyone else. The problem inevitably comes down to the human in control of the vehicle.
Research in the U.K. has identified many causes of driver distraction that drivers don’t recognize at the time but still have a detrimental effect on driving safety. Research shows driver error accounts for nearly 70% of all road accidents.
Precisely how many of those accidents are caused by driver distraction generated by electronic-based in-car systems is unknown. However, research has shown there are four principal types of driver distraction: visual, cognitive, biomechanical, and auditory.
U.S. transport safety officials have proposed guidelines to limit driver distraction from gadgets built into cars. The plan would cover electronic devices integrated into the vehicle and as well as mobile phones. Officials want distracting functions to be disabled when driving. They also want drivers’ in-car environments to be simpler areas to operate while on the move.
The way drivers observe the area in and around their vehicles depends on how complex it is. Drivers find it more difficult to identify potential hazards in complex situations. Cognitive distraction occurs when drivers are thinking about something that isn’t related to driving the vehicle.
Studies of eye focus show that fields of vision narrow vertically and horizontally when drivers are handling a difficult cognitive task. Rather than scanning the road ahead for potential dangers, their vision becomes more tunneled.
Auditory distractions occur when sounds prevent drivers from hearing other road users and audible traffic warning systems. Drivers fail to recogonise the effects such distraction is having and do not respond to their reduced ability to identify and avoid hazards. For instance, they have difficulty controlling their speed and their distance from neighbouring vehicles.
Worryingly, research has shown drivers are more likely to accept a higher level of distraction if they consider the distracting activity a normal part of driving, such as navigating. However, some carmakers are confident that the level of electronically enabled safety systems in modern vehicles will eradicate fatalities.
Volvo has publicly said that after 2020, no one will be killed or seriously injured in its new cars. Toyota says it is aiming for zero fatalities and injuries, although it has not said when. Ford is marketing its Focus as one of the safest vehicles on the market thanks to what the company describe as its self-proclaimed “intelligent protection system.” All this sounds great if you’re travelling in the vehicle, but what about pedestrians and other road users like cyclists?
One study by the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has estimated that four of the currently available automotive safety features—lane departure warning, forward collision warning, blind-spot detection, and adaptive headlights—could prevent or mitigate one out of every three fatal crashes and one out of every five crashes that result in injury.
But while most people welcome measures that assist motorists to avoid accidents, systems that actively intervene in the driving process are viewed with suspicion.
Research continues on perfecting autonomous braking technology that can reduce vehicle speed when other vehicles or obstacles get too close, as well as lane-keeping correction that adjusts steering automatically to keep the vehicle steady in its own driving lane.
Manufacturers are also developing adaptive cruise control, which can maintain a safe speed and distance from other vehicles, and intelligent speed adjustment systems that could prevent drivers exceeding speed limits. But some drivers think these technologies go too far, handing over driving pleasure and responsibility to an IC.
Nevertheless, U.S. authorities are very concerned that despite electronically controlled vehicle safety systems, other technologies such as phones, navigation, audio, and Internet-based communications systems will increase the potential for vehicle accidents caused by driver distraction.
New proposals are expected to require the reduction of buttons and controls to operate in-car systems. They also will limit the visual information drivers must process within the car.
The NHTSA also integral systems that turn-off non-essential functions while the car is moving and keep them disabled until the car is parked. In particular, the organization wants to prevent manual texting, Internet and social media use, address entering, and satellite navigation control.
Automotive electronics in cars can save lives or take them. And of course, new measures that limit or disable in-car gadgets deemed a safety distraction will require electronics systems of their own. For more, see “Automotive ICs Keep Catastrophe At Bay.”