In 1539, King Francis I of France issued a decree condemning the dangers from speeding, overtaking and abrupt turns in town streets. Drunk riders, poor cart driving and bolting horses were leading to rising accidents and deaths on the streets and highways of his kingdom. It was not until the 1780s that road safety greatly improved with the introduction of the pavement, thus separating pedestrians from traffic.
In the second half of the 19th century, horse-drawn transport underpinned city infrastructures, with attendant horse traffic jams. When the combustion engine appeared at the end of that century, its perceived minimal pollution was a very welcome contrast from the perpetual horse urine and dung of city streets. Together with much lower operating costs than owning and feeding a horse, it encouraged the public to relatively rapidly switch to the automobile. In 1910, the US firm Studebaker manufactured several hundred different types of horse-drawn carriages and coaches, but only 20 years later it solely produced automobiles.
After pavements, a further significant intervention was Volvo’s three-point seatbelt introduced in 1959, to replace the then common two-point lap belt. Volvo decided to leave the invention open to the entire industry to adopt, hoping to enhance public safety. Nevertheless it took more than a decade to embrace the change. Ireland legislated that front seatbelts were compulsory in 1971, and the US eventually mandated three-point belts nationally in 1973.
Earlier this summer, the EU Vehicle General Safety Regulation came into force, initially applicable just to new vehicle models launched into the European market, but by next summer applicable to all new vehicles (regardless of the car model). It decrees driver alerts when breaking a speed-limit, active monitoring of driver performance to warn of drowsiness, and reversing sensors or cameras. The contribution of cameras in general, both in-vehicle and on helmet mounts for cyclists and motorbike riders, in gathering evidence from accidents may well lead to mandatory dashboard cams in the near future.
The new EU regulation also lays the foundation for regulation of autonomous and driverless vehicles, with further regulations under consideration. While there is clear industry momentum towards driverless vehicles, it may be some decades before autonomous driving technology is considered reliable under all conditions. In the interim, some start-ups are further innovating for vehicle safety.
London-based Drisk has collected a large video archive of accidents (including dashcam footage). The archive is being used to train autonomous vehicles to recognise and react to rare but hazardous driving scenarios, such as freight falling off a moving lorry or pick-up truck, a vehicle crossing the central reservation or a pedestrian suddenly walking out across a road.
A number of start-ups are experimenting with “geo-fencing” to limit a vehicle’s speed in built-up areas. Indeed, Ireland’s Zipp already uses geo-fencing to enhance the public safety of its fleet of e-scooters and e-bikes. Ford has been trialling geo-fencing of its new electric vans in Aachen and Cologne to control the speed of vehicles in designated speed areas, and believes that the technology could ultimately remove the need for speed-limit signage.
Tyre pressure sensors are now common on many vehicles, and several start-ups are now focused on the condition of tyres. North Carolina’s Tyrata automatically monitors tyre tread depth and wear, by measuring the attenuation of radio signals in the tyre wall. Revvo, a company in Silicon Valley, is mining data from its proprietary sensors for tyre wear, road conditions and driving behaviour to predict and advise vehicle fleet owners on tyre tread wear. Tactile Mobility, in Israel, is augmenting sensor data from tyres with a range of other existing sensors to provide data analytics to manufacturers, insurers and municipalities on vehicle and driver behaviour.
One of the largest challenges with the transition of vehicles from just mechanical transports to sensor-laden computers with wheels is driver confusion from the plethora of subsystems, control buttons and visual indicators. Not only might your new car have cruise control (to manage speed) but also lane assistance (to alert when transgressing lane markings), active steering assistance (to automatically adjust steering), adaptive braking (to automatically slow the vehicle if appropriate), blind spot warnings and so on. Many drivers may not fully trust these subsystems or may misunderstand what exactly each does and does not do. Drivers can be overwhelmed by the myriad indicators and prompts illuminating their dash panel. Consequently, it is hardly surprising that many drivers prefer to be in full and direct control, with the extra intelligence available from these subsystems switched off.
Recognising this, some manufacturers are now considering how best to train drivers to be aware of and to safely use these systems. It is one thing to be able to competently drive a vehicle. It is another to understand how to enhance driving ability with intelligent safety systems, and in particular not to become distracted by them. There is currently some irony in safely using the latest safety systems, and their ergonomics should be improved.