Generally taken for granted or, indeed, only acknowledged after the fact, the bouquet of modern car safety features fitted to most new vehicles has thankfully evolved at a generally faster pace than the cars themselves. That said, these five innovations in automotive safety have undoubtedly saved many lives over the years:
1. The three-point seatbelt
While the lap-type, two-point seatbelt had been around since the 1800s, it wasn’t until then president of Volvo Cars Gunner Engellau tragically lost a relative in a motor vehicle accident that the push towards a more effective way of securing occupants within their respective seats began. Engellau approached countryman and fellow engineer Nils Bohlin – who was working for SAAB at the time – before greenlighting a massive investment into the development of Bohlin’s idea for a three-point seatbelt.
Designed to simultaneously prevent the top half of an occupant’s torso from pivoting forwards in the event of a collision, while Volvo would patent its invention in 1959, the brand would famously make this life-saving technology freely available for the rest of the automotive sector to adopt.
2. ABS braking
As fast as a modern motor vehicle is capable of travelling, the ability to slow a car back down to a stop in a hurry is considered one of the key advancements in automotive safety.
First developed within the field of aeronautics – including being featured on Concorde – it wasn’t until Mercedes-Benz and electronics brand Teldix (later bought by Bosch) developed a multi-chamber, electronically-controlled “anti-skid” system for the 1978 S-Class that the concept of ABS-assisted braking was realised in the automotive space.
This technology’s ability to detect and then prevent a vehicle’s tyres from losing traction under hard braking introduced newfound levels of control and thus potential collision avoidance to the driving experience.
Patents for a cushion-like device that can prevent occupants involved in an accident from making potentially life-threatening contact with the solid bits of a vehicle’s interior date back as far as 1952. That said, while relying on the technology available of the time, these early ideas lacked both a level of sophistication and, indeed, the type of early-detection science required to make them particularly effective. You can also browse through a historic timeline of all major vehicle safety features dating from 1921 to today.”
It wouldn’t be until the early ‘70s when predominantly US-based car manufacturers – including Ford and General Motors – began introducing more advanced, gas-filled airbag technology to their respective fleets. Activated in a matter of milliseconds, these items could deploy from a housing sited within the steering wheel or dashboard (in the case of the front seat passenger), combining with the workings of a modern seat belt to prevent potentially serious injury.
In a modern context, while the fitment of at least a driver and front passenger airbag system is now compulsory in many markets around the world, this technology has advanced to include curtain bags that extend across the length of the cabin in the event of a side impact or roll, as well as driver-focused knee protection.
4. Electronic Stability Control
Faster and generally larger with each new generation, the complexity of a modern automobile is staggering. With a view to managing both steadily increasing general performance, growing overall masses and, indeed, swelling congestion, vehicle manufacturers rely heavily on fast-working electronics as a means of safely guiding the average driver through each journey.
Introduced into mainstream motoring in the early 1990s by the likes of Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Toyota, electronic stability control is activated via a so-called yaw sensor positioned as close to the centre of the vehicle as possible. Once this sensor detects an abnormal movement around its vertical axis (a potential loss of control by the driver), it can call upon any number of the car’s safety systems, including ABS brakes and traction control, with the aim of regaining stability. In a modern application, ESC will also assume control of throttle response, reigning-in the vehicle’s performance as required.
Most high-performance cars offer the driver the option to either dial-down the level of oversight that these systems offer, or to switch this technology off with a view to assuming full control of the car’s driveability.
5. Front Collision Avoidance
Usually forming part of a comprehensive bouquet of active safety features included in many modern – usually premium – vehicles, a front collision detection system relies on the workings of radar, laser or GPS-linked, forward-facing sensors that can detect whether a vehicle is approaching another vehicle, obstacle or even pedestrian at a speed that is deemed dangerous. Via either an audible warning, the flashing of interior lighting or, in many cases, the activation of an autonomous braking function, this technology aims to alert the driver to a potentially imminent, front-end collision.
Interestingly, until this relatively new technology becomes more mainstream, many manufacturers, including Volvo, have noted an increase in rear-end collisions involving its vehicles. This is likely due to the inevitably slower reactions of the driver following a vehicle that has braked autonomously to avoid a collision. You can also find an extensive guide for advanced car safety features available in the market from the Consumer Reports Organisation.