Safe Motoring-If You'll Pay

E-mail Stephanie vL Henkel

I cannot get enough of that TV commercial featuring the self-parking sedan. Reading about the sensor-based technology that makes such a trick possible was a wowee experience, but watching it actually work—well, I might as well be seeing my first horseless carriage. We've been bringing you regular reports on advances in automotive sensors. Today I'm going to add two more to your collection and relay some numbers that I found startling.

Smart Frames and Clear Views
This first safety enhancement feels like something off the SciFi channel. German researchers, funded by the EU, have mounted stereo cameras and radar equipment fore and aft on a vehicle. When the onboard computer detects an imminent side-on impact, it activates a shape-changing alloy in the door. The alloy expands and distributes part of the impact force to the door frame. The idea is to strengthen a notoriously weak spot in a vehicle's body. (Consider the rush toward side air bags.)

The second automotive improvement might seem at first more like a convenience (as in hands-off parallel parking) than a safety feature, but I'll let you decide. Those who live and drive in parts of the country punctuated by mountains know that even a 1000 foot change in elevation can lay sudden and impenetrable condensation on the inside of your windshield. Even in summer, when you don't want your conventional hot-air defogger running all the time. The alternative is to stay busy fiddling with switches and levers—while driving blind. What Sensata has done about this predicament is to mount an RH sensor behind the rear-view mirror or some other place you don't see it. Two other sensors monitor the temperature of the windshield and that of the air next to it. A control unit chews on the three signals and decides whether the air compressor should kick in to dry out the cabin and whether to lay on a stream of warm or cool air. Sensata has a pretty slick new approach to cabin climate control too that represents a departure from standard capacitive sensing. It's worth a read and you'll find it at the above link.

What's Holding Up the Show?
When the notion of seat belts was first broached in the 1950s, the ensuing howls of protest would have made you think John Wayne had been told to wear a riding helmet. Wrinkled clothing! Government intrusion! Nonetheless, as soon as a proto-version hit the market, my father decided the idea made sense and installed two for the bench front seat of our Plymouth Cranbrook. Those kits were available as fairly inexpensive after-market safety enhancements. A drill and a crescent wrench pretty much did the job.

So where is all this new stuff we've been reading about? Turns out that a lot of these potentially life-saving devices are offered only as part of larger packages that might include fancy wheels, power this and that, and A/C. Strangely enough, when safety features such as side airbags and curtains and anti-skid brake systems (ABS) are offered as individual options, buyers are more likely to spring for comfort and entertainment offerings such as CD players, cruise control, AC, and powered side mirrors. Only ABS made the Top 10 list. Go figure.

The hot new focus right now is on electronic stability control (ESC) that goes a long way toward preventing rollovers, especially in SUVs. Once offered on only the more pricey vehicles, ESC is now available as an option for more modestly ticketed rides. The government recently decreed that every vehicle will have that capability as standard by 2012, and automakers are competing to see who can at least make the most noise about compliance.

Now Those Numbers
According to a report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, ESC could reduce the number of SUV rollovers in the U.S. by 80%. Those top-heavy machines have a 30% greater likelihood of rolling over than standard vehicles, and that sort of accident accounts for 60% of SUV fatalities. Moreover, ESC could save 10,000 lives per year by shrinking the risk of fatal accidents by 56%. (The report notes that although ESC costs $300.–$800. as a stand-alone, bundling it with other attractions that have nothing to do with safety can drive the cost to $2000. or higher.)

Rollovers account for 30% of the some 34,000 automotive fatalities in this country each year, even though they represent only 3% of the serious traffic mishaps. The same report goes cheerily on to say that ESC reduces the chances of single-vehicle accidents by 41% and multiple-vehicle wrecks by 37%. That study ended in 2004 so does not take into account the most recent giant leaps forward, assuming any, in the expanded availability of ESC.

Fill 'Er Up
As a final note, saving at the gas pumps (and you just know the prices will zoom right back up after next Tuesday) might mean shedding some tonnage. Our own. Were we to slim down to our average 1960 weight (166 vs. today's 191 for men, 140 vs. 164 for women) we would burn 1 billion fewer gallons of gasoline, enough to keep 1.7 million vehicles tooting about for a year. Of course, sitting in those 1.7 million rides might be those who ought to be using their feet instead.