Top 10: Car safety innovations
With Volvo confidently announcing that the 2015 XC90 will be one of the safest cars ever made, thanks to pioneering technology including a system that seeks to automatically avoid head-on collisions, we take a look at some of the most important tech that’s made driving a much safer pastime.
Anti-lock braking system (ABS)
ABS was created to counteract the issue of brakes ‘locking’ the wheels, causing the car to skid and dramatically increasing stopping distance. After beginning to proliferate in affordable passenger cars from the early ‘70s, the system is now standard fit on every UK production car. It works by monitoring the rotational speed of each wheel and readjusting brake force automatically when it detects that one or more of the wheels are about to lock.
The development of the modern airbag goes back to the World War II era, but General Motors claims that its Oldsmobile Toronado was the first to put an airbag in a production car, in 1974. Today’s ‘SRS’ airbag (Supplemental Restraint System, which is to say it supplements a seatbelt as a safety device) comes in many shapes and sizes, with most cars including curtain (side) and knee airbags, as well as the ubiquitous front head items.
As with the airbag, work began on the seat belt many decades ago (the end of the 19th Century, in fact), but it was only relatively recently that it became standard and legal fit on all cars. Saab was the first maker to offer a seatbelt as standard, after safety pioneer Nils Bohlin invented the three-point belt we use today, which it’s estimated reduces a person’s chances of death or injury in an accident by 50%.
Developed from the 1930s onwards, the modern seat head restraint is a vital component in reducing neck and spine injuries in the event of a collision – it’s not really a ‘head rest’. The simple principle is that it mitigates the effects of whiplash by preventing rearward movement of the head. RoSPA recommends that the top of a head restraint is level with the top of the driver’s head, and as close to the back of the head as possible.
Child seats were originally seen as a convenience item rather than a safety imperative, until during the ‘60s their importance in child car safety was recognised and developed. The introduction of ISOFIX in 1997, a system for properly anchoring child seats in place, was a major step forward. In July 2013, ‘i-Size’ became the new standard regulation for child seats, involving new forms of additional side impact safety testing.
Like most of these safety innovations, the development of the windscreen wiper began in the early 20th Century, although the earliest brush-based wipers were far removed from today’s electrically operated rubber blades. The modern intermittent wiper owes its invention to the human eye - in the late 1950s Robert Kearns realised that the eyelid cleans the eye intermittently, and that a car’s wiper should do the same thing.
Another innovation with Volvo at the forefront, unfortunately the Swedish manufacturer’s 2010 demonstration of low speed automatic braking technology famously failed in front of 120 journalists armed with cameras and YouTube accounts. Still, auto braking is a brilliant advancement in pedestrian safety, with even cars as little as the Volkswagen Up offering the tech as an option.
Similar to ABS, traction control monitors the relative speeds of all the car’s wheels and attempts to regulate them to bring an out-of-control car back in line. It does this in a variety of ways, including applying brake force to specific wheels, and/or reducing engine power. The system originated in America in the early ‘70s, and is now a standard feature on almost every production car in Europe.
The idea of a crumple zone is to absorb the energy of an impact at the front or rear of the car, to minimise damage to the passenger compartment. Manufacturers do this by employing ultra-high strength steels for the passenger cell, making it extremely rigid, while using lower strength steel (or aluminium in the most modern cars) at the front and rear, designed to deform a certain way.
Lane departure warning
If a driver drifts out of lane, then it’s likely that he or she either isn’t concentrating or is too tired to drive. Lane departure warnings outwork in a variety of ways, but all detect markings on the road and use them to inform a driver that they’re not keeping to the straight and narrow. Introduced by Nissan in 2001, the most sophisticated systems will self-steer the car back into lane, while all at least sound a warning to alert the driver to his or her inattention.