Can a car really be death-proof?

The Death-proof car

A crash test dummy in the back seat of a Volvo at the 2006 New York Auto Show. Volvo is working on an injury-proof car, due out in 2020.
A crash test dummy in the back seat of a Volvo at the 2006 New York Auto Show. Volvo is working on an injury-proof car, due out in 2020.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

When humans are scared, our bodies freeze in the face of danger. This holds especially true when it comes to auto collisions. Research shows that the average driver takes about 1.1 seconds to react to an accident before braking [source: Fambro, et al]. This may not sound like much time, but considering that a reduction of 10 mph before a crash could cut the rate of death in highway accidents by 50 percent, that one second can be significant [source: Reuters]. What's more, in half of all rear-end collisions, the brakes are never even applied by the oncoming driver [source: Volvo].

Auto safety engineers are working under the premise that if cars are making calculated decisions about an impending collision, accident rates will go down. By taking humans' emotional reactions (or lack thereof) out of the equation, engineers may be closing in on a death-proof car.

Of course, the term "death-proof" may not be entirely accurate. Even the best systems fail. But engineers at the PReVENT project are researching how to build the most death-proof car possible. They're reimagining some safety features available in today's digital cars. Instead of using these systems to provide drivers with information to avoid a crash, the goal is getting the systems to think for the driver.

One existing safety feature is the precollision prevention system. It uses lasers, infrared sensors and cameras to detect obstacles ahead in the road. A warning light and an alarm alert drivers to the impending danger. The car then prepares for the accident by tightening seatbelts, engaging airbags and increasing brake pressure (and in some cases, applying the brakes on its own). Another system in place is blind spot detection. These keep an eye on other cars the driver can't see, letting him or her know other cars are there.

These features signal to a driver that a potential problem is near. PReVENT is working on using these features to actually take over when that problem goes from a potential threat to a real danger. The group is engineering intelligent car systems that analyze the impending situation from all angles -- literally. So while the driver's frozen in terror, the car's navigating out of an accident.

PReVENT's vision of a safer car is one that uses information from satellite navigational maps to detect hairy road conditions -- like hairpin curves. The system will monitor blind spots for the presence of other cars, pedestrians and obstacles, tracking the speed and direction of each. With all of this information, the car's onboard computer will calculate the best course of action to take, whether it's applying the brakes, swerving or both [source: ICT Results]. In the future, car navigation algorithms may make risk assessments -- like determining that running over a squirrel to the left is preferable to hitting a woman pushing a stroller to the right.

While there may never be a truly death-proof car, an automobile that aims to protect against injury is quite plausible. More people are injured in car wrecks than are killed; auto fatalities reach about 1.2 million globally each year, while there are about 50 million injuries around the world [source: Reuters]. If the technology being developed by PReVENT is refined and widely introduced, both of those statistics may dramatically decrease in the near future.

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  • Fambro, D.B., et al. "Driver perception-brake response in stopping sight distance situations." Texas A&M University. 1998.
  • Squatriglia, Chuck. "Volvo promises an injury-proof car by 2020." Wired. May 2, 2008.
  • Tellum, Tori. "Top 10 high-tech safety technologies." Edmunds.
  • "New Collision Warning with Auto Brake helps prevent rear-ed collisions." Volvo Car Corporation. August 28, 2007.
  • "Road safety: The uncrashable car?" ICT Results. April 15, 2008.
  • "Volvo's 2020 vision: The injury-proof car." Reuters. May 1, 2008.