• Seatbelts that can sense an impending crash
  • A safety sound that protects your eardrums in an emergency
  • Self-driving tech that will one day see zero fatalities on our roads

Seatbelts: Keeping driver and passengers secure

In 1984, the humble seatbelt reduced driver fatalities by 25% after a new law required passengers to wear them from 31 January 1983. 

But there is always room for improvement, and seatbelts have had to get smart to make sure of truly safe driving. 

The new Volvo XC90, for example, can sense an upcoming crash and add pre-tensioning to the belts in advance. The seatbelt then holds passengers in place in preparation for the collision to reduce injuries.

Volvo’s technology is targeted at achieving the company’s Vision 2020 goal, whereby nobody will be killed or seriously injured in a Volvo by the year 2020. Volvo is also the leader in Radar Cruise Control technology, which scans the road ahead to make sure that the car remains at a safe distance from surrounding traffic.

The EU-funded HARKEN project, meanwhile, has developed seatbelts that can measure the heartrate of a driver and warn them if there are signs of tiredness or a possible lack of concentration.

Pre-Safe Sound: Protecting the ear from loud noises

The last thing anyone thinks of protecting in a car accident is their ears, but Mercedes-Benz has introduced a system called PRE-SAFE® Sound in its latest generation E-Class. 

When the car senses an upcoming crash, the sound system plays a loud, static-type noise at around 85 decibels, which is loud enough to trigger the acoustic reflex and protect the ears. 

‘A car accident involves a very significant level of noise,’ explains Rodolfo Schöneburg, Head of Vehicle Safety, Durability and Corrosion Protection at Mercedes-Benz Cars. ‘It can lead to temporary impairment of hearing – and this is exactly what Pre-Safe Sound works to counteract. 

‘Although the system cannot completely prevent the damage caused by an accident, it can help to reduce it.’

Lane Keep Assist: Aiding tired drivers

Research by road-safety campaigners Think! suggests that almost 20% of accidents on major roads are sleep-related. Tired drivers can have lapses in concentration, which can lead to a vehicle wandering into other lanes.

Lane Keep Assist, which is now found on many entry-level family cars, can detect when a vehicle strays into other lanes via its on-board cameras, and then audibly warn the driver with a chime or through a vibration in the steering wheel, helping drivers to stay focussed. 

More advanced machines, like those offered by Volvo, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, will even gently apply steering without the need for driver input to keep the car on course.

Parking sensors: No more supermarket prangs

Successfully parking a modern vehicle in the cramped spaces of a supermarket can be bothersome – or, at worst, a silly reason to claim on your car insurance.

Parking sensors can be selected as an optional extra on nearly all modern cars (or retrofitted for a fee); they give the driver an audible warning when their vehicle is getting too close to its surroundings.

Better still, reversing cameras – or a system such as Nissan’s Around View Monitor, which gives a bird’s-eye view of the vehicle on the infotainment screen – make all forms of parking much simpler.

Assisted driving technology has taken it one step further and there are now self-parking cars, which use sensors and cameras to ease drivers into the right spot. After the car has found a space, it notifies the driver. The driver then controls the brakes and acceleration, while the car does the steering, to parallel park.

Smart windscreens: The future of glass

It’s amazing to think that early vehicles used basic plate glass in their rudimentary windscreens. It took Henry Ford a good few years to realise that this was a bad idea – and when he did, in 1919 he introduced laminated safety glass into his vehicles.

‘The windscreen and even the rear-view mirror are becoming smarter in the next-generation vehicles,’ explains Tim van Goethem, Vice President of Group Infotainment Platform at Harman.

‘Vehicle information, navigational information and safety instructions can now be overlaid onto head-up displays to make sure the driver’s gaze isn’t taken off the road. But it won’t be long until the entire windscreen will be a piece of smart glass,’ he adds.

Need proof? Corning, the company that makes the tough Gorilla Glass found on the front of an iPhone, is starting to make and sell screens to automotive manufacturers. 

Corning Chief Technology Officer Jeff Evenson revealed at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that a full-windscreen display could be here ‘in less than two years’.

It’s fair to say that as cars get smarter, they’re also getting safer. And by taking the strain out of the daily drive, the modern machine makes life on the road that bit easier.

Better still, advances in materials, which are now lighter and stronger than ever, make sure that if the worst is to happen, those on board are as well protected as they can be.

Follow Leon Poultney on Twitter @Blokesincars for more great driving ideas.