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Future cars won't let us crash, even cheap ones

Industry news
Dubai, United Arab Emirates – Within the next five years, a car that doesn't respond autonomously to danger, even while it’s being driven by a human, won't be considered safe to drive.

That astonishing statement doesn’t come from a future think-tank, but from a hard-headed carmaker – Mike Song, the new head of Hyundai operations in Africa and the Middle East.

Today’s cars already rate highly for protecting their occupants in a crash, largely due to the advent of New Car Assessment Programmes in most first-world markets. Now, says Song, we are moving from an era of passive safety to one of active safety, when cars will increasingly act to avoid a crash in the first place – and it’s happening very quickly.

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Hyundai's Ioniq autonomous concept brakes hard to avoid hitting a (very brave) test pedestrian.

This is not a prediction, he says. Song points out that, although the airbag was invented by American engineer John W Hetrick in 1951 and the three-point seatbelt by Volvo’s Nils Bohlin in 1958, it took many years for them to become standard equipment Airbags only became available in production cars in the early 1970s, while head restraints and crumple zones also evolved gradually over decades.

“Now we’re seeing this level of innovation in the space of five or six years,” he says ”and new features are moving from the luxury segment into mass-market cars incredibly fast."

Most cars today have active safety features such as anti-lock braking and electronic stability control, helping the driver to control the car in an emergency – but they still rely on human response.

"Many crashes happen because drivers – even skilled, careful drivers – are too slow to react,” Song says. “By the time we see the danger, we don't have time to brake or turn the steering wheel.

“But by combining a front sensor with the ABS and cruise control systems, the car can detect danger, and automatically brake or even stop. Side-mounted sensors can tell when you car is wandering across lane lines and nudge the steering to get the car back into its own lane. “Connecting all these systems enables the car to see and respond to danger much faster than a human."

With all these sensors, it's no wonder the autonomous Ioniq is more observant than a human driver.

Independent NCAP testing he says, has accelerated this process, pushing automakers to build safer cars. A five-star rating for a new model is a big marketing tool, and it’s also a lot more difficult to achieve now than it was in 1997, when EuroNCAP was introduced.

Even so, at that time several top selling small cars scored only two stars out of a possible four and one popular model rated just one. In 2016, every car tested rated at least three stars, even though the testing was a lot stiffer.
But that coveted fifth star, introduced in 2009, is only awarded to cars with a high level of crash avoidance technology – and ongoing revision keeps raising the bar.

“We want five stars for every new model,” says Song, “but every new model has to be cleverer and more capable of acting to avoiding a crash, to achieve that fifth star.”

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IOL Motoring

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