How Pre-Collision Systems Work

Pre-collision Systems and Radar
Pre-collision systems today use radar to detect potentially dangerous crashes.
Pre-collision systems today use radar to detect potentially dangerous crashes.

There are generally two kinds of safety systems in automobiles -- passive and active.

A passive safety system is anything in a car or truck that, for the most part, sits idle and operates only when necessary. A good example of this is a common seat belt. Once a passenger buckles a seat belt, the belt won't automatically lock into position until the car makes a sudden stop. Some might call airbag systems passive safety, too. However, you could argue that because they rely on impact sensors that determine the severity of an accident, and use that information to determine how quickly they inflate and how long they should stay inflated, airbags could fall into the active safety category.

An active safety system is very different from a passive safety system, especially when you're talking about pre-collision systems. Active systems operate based on signals and information gathered, and they typically either alert the driver to a dangerous situation or assist in important maneuvers like steering while braking. These systems actively seek out information in regards to the vehicle's current state.

Although early collision detection units used various technologies like infrared waves to detect objects, most pre-collision systems today work with the help of radar. Anything that's a wave, like a sound wave, can bounce or echo. You may have experienced this by shouting down into a well or over a deep canyon, only to hear the sound of your voice bounce back and reverberate. Instead of sound, however, radar systems use radio waves. Radio waves are invisible and they can travel much farther than sound.

Pre-collision systems place small radar detectors up near the front of the car, usually within the grill, where they constantly send out quick bursts of high-frequency radar waves. These waves will bounce off the nearest objects and return to the sensor, where a separate unit connected to the sensor calculates how long it took for the signal to leave and bounce back. With this information, a PCS unit can determine another car's position, distance, speed and relative velocity almost immediately, and if any sudden changes in those factors could potentially cause a collision, the system can provide information or assist the driver in avoiding a potential accident.

So, now that we know that if a pre-collision system recognizes a potential car crash, it can't just sit there and let chaos ensue. What do pre-collision systems actually do to help out drivers, and what kinds of systems are available in vehicles right now? Read on to find out.