Can Cars Ever Be Crash-proof?

It’s a question that’s been pondered over for decades - and it would certainly be a milestone if we could declare the cars we drive immune from collisions. But with worldwide road deaths standing at 1.25 million in 2013 alone, as well as upwards of 50 million injuries, we’ve a long way to go. So, how far are we really from the crash-proof car?

Cars are the safest they’ve ever been

Car manufacturers continuously strive to make their models safer than ever and this is bound to be having a positive impact. Here in the UK for example, road deaths fell by 5% in the year ending June 2017 despite traffic levels actually seeing a 1.4% rise.The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) reported in early 2018 that new cars rolling off production lines are the safest ever made, with almost 70% of new models fitted with advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), in many cases as standard. Simultaneously, the fitment of collision warning systems has risen by 20% in the last year.

Safety technology is getting very clever indeed

Of the makes and models found currently in Inchcape showrooms, examples of cutting-edge car safety systems include:

Audi’s ‘Pre-sense’ predictive safety technologies that use cameras and radars to discern and warn of approaching hazards before automatically applying the brakes if necessary
BMW’s Icon Adaptive LED headlights that keep road users and pedestrians safe through exceptional levels of illumination and responsive angling
Jaguar’s Driver Condition Monitor that prompts the driver with differing warnings if it detects possible drowsiness
Lexus’ ‘Safety System + A’ incorporating Active Steering Assist, the first technology in the world to automatically try to steer the car out of danger if emergency braking isn’t computed as being sufficient
Mercedes’ PRE-SAFE system that tightens seatbelts, adjusts head restraints, closes the window and sunroof and carries out other measures to proactively protect a car’s occupants when it senses that a collision may be imminent
Volkswagen’s efforts in designing increasingly protective crumple zones and occupant cells, roll-over bar systems, measures for protecting people’s feet, and advanced impact absorption and deformation zones.

Bold safety objectives promoted

Another car-maker, Volvo, has pledged that nobody will be killed or seriously injured by one of its contemporary models by 2020, which is a fantastic objective. It’s worth noting, though, that although the Swedish brand is confident over eradicating human death and injury with its cars, they haven’t said that the vehicles will be immune from crashing. Likewise, unless geo-fencing or other advanced technological solutions are introduced to all new vehicles, a person could still intentionally crash one if they desired to for whatever reason.

What about random events?

Although the latest cars are safer than ever before, accidents still happen every single day. This will remain true until all vehicles are autonomous, because of factors ranging from driver behaviour, weather, road surfaces, driver age and competence, and health issues. Besides, drivers can still choose to ignore warnings and alerts over fatigue, potential collisions and other variables.

From experts in the automotive industry and voices in the fields of science and road safety, to government and the general public, many around the world increasingly hope that the driverless, autonomous vehicles regularly appearing in the media will eventually see all crashes eradicated.

Self-driving cars don’t experience anger, frustration or tiredness, nor can they get drunk or become distracted by a passer-by, which immediately boosts their safety credentials. However, driverless cars aren’t yet intelligent enough to discern ambiguous and uncertain situations that are part and parcel of human life, such as somebody tripping and falling into the road, or a child running into the road to chase a ball, for example.

Technology is never perfect and nor are humans

No matter how expensive, rigorously-tested and complex certain technology is, it will always remain exposed to potential failures, malfunctions and malevolent use. An example would be the occasional technical disruption caused to tram networks in various cities due to computer error. Additionally, at a time when war is tilted more towards cyber-attacks than physical combat, automotive nor any other technology can conceivably be fully protected from such threats, as has been seen with banks for example.

Autonomous car developments

While studies from organisations like Goldman Sachs predict that up to 60% of cars could be autonomous by 2030, others remain sceptical. Human drivers can think ahead, whereas driverless cars, although able to act much more swiftly to detected dangers, operate largely reactively. Thierry Fraichard, a computer scientist from France, sums the current state of autonomous cars up nicely when he asked in his latest paper: “what if some idiot jumps out in front of the [driverless] car at the last second?” He comments that ‘inevitable collision states’ will always exist for vehicles even when they’re all self-driving, as no machine is able to predict all eventualities in a random world.

Spring 2018 saw an autonomous Uber car fatally strike a lady pushing a bicycle and her shopping across a busy road in Arizona despite being fitted with the absolute pinnacle in collision avoidance technology. A leaked document revealed that Uber’s driverless cars have only been able to manage 0.8 miles on average before requiring a human to intervene and take over control of the vehicle.

Summing up

Cars becoming fully crash-proof therefore still seem like a distant scenario as computers still can’t beat human discernment when ambiguous behaviour is involved. It’s very reassuring indeed in the meantime, though, to see car manufacturers from Audi, BMW and Mercedes to Toyota and Volkswagen constantly making their models safer and safer, with road deaths and injuries reducing as a result.