A car that can brake itself to avoid a fender-bender during the morning commute might seem far into the future. • Except it debuts this month. • That's when City Safety, a low-speed collision-avoidance technology, becomes available on the 2010 Volvo XC60, a crossover utility.
City Safety is just one of several new technologies designed to prevent crashes and save lives. Auto sales are at a nearly two-decade low, but the pace of safety innovations continues unabated. Whereas air bags, antilock brakes and electronic stability control were the standard for a safe car until very recently, automakers continue to raise the stakes.
Radar, lasers and cameras work with computers and sophisticated software to do tasks unheard of just a few years ago. They tell you if you're falling asleep at the wheel, or if a car is in your blind spot. If you drift from your lane, they warn you, and in some instances, nudge you back into your lane. And modern cruise control doesn't just keep a steady speed, but can help your car keep a steady distance from the car in front of you.
"There's no question the vehicle itself has played a role in the decline of fatalities," said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. ". . . The next frontier would be to help the driver avoid the crash in the first place."
There's evidence these new safety systems already are saving lives. NHTSA recently reported that the number of Americans killed in traffic accidents reached a 14-year low in 2008, and that the fatality rate per 100 million miles driven fell to 1.28, down from 1.37 in 2007. The federal agency says electronic stability control and other "innovative technologies" have contributed to the decrease.
For many buyers, Volvo and safety are synonymous. The automaker, which is owned by Ford Motor, characterized City Safety as a world first.
Here's how it works: A windshield-mounted laser sends infrared rays out as far as 18 feet ahead of the vehicle. A computer analyzes the rays reflected back from any object ahead of the car, and if it concludes a collision is imminent, it automatically brakes the vehicle.
The system is designed to prevent the low-speed collisions that often happen when a driver fails to notice that the car ahead has slowed or stopped. Nearly 75 percent of all collisions take place at speeds below 19 mph, data shows.
Another innovation has been on the market several years: adaptive cruise control.
Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Lexus, Volkswagen, Acura, Hyundai and Cadillac are among automakers with a form of adaptive cruise control on some vehicles.
It'll be a standard feature on the 2010 Ford Taurus, which will sell for about $26,000. That car comes with a collision warning system that gives a driver a visual and audible warning that slower traffic is ahead. It also precharges the brakes to help a driver stop more quickly.