When it comes to making driving safer, much has been done over the past decades but there is still much work to do.
The European Union is currently backing a scheme to analyse drivers’ habits in order to reduce the number of road accidents.
Aria Etemad is the project coordinator. Talking about the developments in the industry, he told us:
“In the last 50, 60 years, there has been a lot of work for car safety. Over the last decades an important thing was the introduction of safety belts in vehicles. Then there is the crumple zone. And of course Airbags.”
But, as Volvo safety engineer John-Fredrik Groenvall explains, experts are now trying to shift the focus of research:
“Research and development have to move towards the pre-crash phase, we have to do things to prevent accidents.
“Normal drivers, they don’t do what we expect them to do, they do whatever they want. They eat hamburgers, they talk on the phone, they do anything,” he says.
Getting inside the head of the person behind the wheel is one of the priorities of the research team.
“We notice that in 90% of the cases or even more the driver was guilty and responsible for the fact that it even came to an accident,” says Etemad.
So what do normal drivers really do behind the wheel?
Drivers in Sweden are among the 1,000 people taking part in the euroFOT project.
The aim is to test out the latest generation of ‘active safety systems’ or hi-tech devices to help drivers avoid accidents before they even happen.
The volunteers are monitored every time they drive.
Anders is one of the guinea-pig drivers. He described to us how the test is set up:
“There are six cameras in the car. But it’s also filming the exterior, filming in front of the car, back, the rear view, the hands, the face, the feet.”
“I’ve forgotten about it, so they will see me singing quite a lot, because usually it is very loud music here,” says Daniella, another ‘test’ driver.
Everything about the way the car is driven is downloaded by the engineers. Each car records about 700 megabytes of data per hour.
Most of the volunteers’ cars have several different active safety systems installed, as Groenvall explains:
“On this car here we have the forward collision warning system with autobraking, so if the car comes too close the radar will give a signal. We have the lane-keeping system here that helps the driver to keep in lane, but also warns if the driver is sleepy or distracted. We have a BLIS system here that shows if there are approaching cars in the blind spot, a blind spot detection system, and also distance alert, which is helping the driver to keep an appropriate safety distance here.”
Another real road, and another real life test for a new active safety system.
The engineers driving along this quiet lane near Aachen in Germany are developing a new prototype as part of the euroFOT project.
The technology is called ‘curve speed warning’.
Ford engineer Christophe Arndt took us through it: “We see now a warning, on the dashboard it tells us that we have a right curve coming up, which we can not see yet, but it already warns us that we should take this right curve at a speed of 40 km/h.”
The system aims to combine information from maps, GPS and even weather forecasts.
“We are currently working on different aspects of the system. First we try to understand how accurate the maps are, in order to know how we have to adapt our algorythms and our parameters, and then how we should react to the different surfaces of the road,” says Arndt.
Millions of kilometres will be covered by the 1,000 volunteer drivers taking part in the project.
The data about how they interact with the active safety systems will flow to the SAFER Research Centre at Chalmers University in Gothenburg.
The information offers safety analysts like Trent Victor a unique insight.
“There are strange things that happen in traffic that you never know and you can’t really plan for as an engineer, and it’s really interesting to see how these systems react in these unexpected situatons,” says Trent.
Trent’s team will be looking for moments when the active safety systems are triggered, to see if they helped the driver stay out of trouble.
“The active safety systems are intended to help the drivers. Obviously drivers that are irritated with systems are not going to want to use them, so to be successful inside these systems they have to be designed in a way that they like them, right? So that’s also part of the interesting feedback that can be given by this study.”
It’s early in the project, and these drivers are still learning how it feels to be surrounded by a new range of alarms, and warning lights.
Some systems are popular, others less so. But it’s all valuable feedback.
“I know I’m right, I’m driving correctly, and still the car is trying to correct me in a way. If I do something wrong I think it’s OK that the car tries to correct me, but if I’m driving OK I don’t like to be corrected,” says Anders. “Like now if it sees that I’m not really following the road, it will warn me, and say ‘hello, maybe you need to rest,’ or maybe you need to forget what you’re doing.”
In 2008 over 30,000 people were killed in road accidents in the European Union.
That number is slowly coming down.
As Aria Etemad explains, the aim of this project is to demonstrate in scientific terms that active safety systems make a difference for real drivers on real roads.
“With the active safety systems you can interfere in the system, in the driving behaviour, in most cases it is braking, and by doing this we assist the driver, so that it doesn’t even come to an accident.”
The crash tests will continue, but a new breed of technology may help avoid accidents happening in the first place.