How has car safety evolved and what comes next?

Manufacturers have a tough ask when it comes to bringing car safety features into their lineups. While their engineers are more than capable of creating solutions that do the job, they're pitching their ideas to a tough crowd.

For example, enthusiasts often aren't interested, and would prefer vehicles went back to the spartan days of classic sports cars, where even seat belts were often optional. Casual car-buyers, on the other hand, expect safety technologies as standard. 

With the battle to satisfy both parties, as well as the need to meet strict ANCAP guidelines for secure vehicles, technicians have rapidly evolved what it means to have a safe car over the years. What originally began as little more than stretching a belt across your person eventually morphed into airbags, stability control and now complex arrays of computers and sensors to let the car make its own choices. 

So, working from the seat belt to modern day computer wizardry, here are some of the most important safety developments that shaped the past, present and are now changing the future.

The seat belt, pride of Sweden

Believe it or not, what is now the subject of numerous road safety campaigns and second nature for modern drivers and passengers wasn't created until the 1930s. Even then, the devices consisted of little more than a lap belt, and were only a suggestion for manufacturers and motorists. 

It wasn't until 1958 that Nils Bohlin invented the three point seat belt that still adorns modern vehicles. Few will be surprised that Mr Bohlin worked for Volvo, the Swedish marque with a passion for making some of the safest vehicles on the planet, like the XC90 SUV – a car endorsed by Jeremy Clarkson himself. 

In fact, the company even once claimed that by 2020, no person would be killed in a Volvo due to an accident. It's a bold claim, and one the firm has since backed down from, but it doesn't diminish the intent. 

Obviously, seat belts are now compulsory for manufacturers to install and vehicle occupants to wear. While it's difficult to tell just how many lives Mr Bohlin has saved with such a simple piece of engineering, the seat belt is undoubtedly one of the most important design developments to make its way into vehicles.

Airbags, the key to impact protection

Airbags are an interesting invention, bursting out from within the car to catch and hold your head in an impact. It's certainly not a comfortable sensation, but it's infinitely better to be punched in the face with a bag of air than it is to hit your head on anything else in a car. 

Although the patents for these life-saving devices were originally filed in the early 50s, a working model wasn't patented until 1968 and it took a further three years for them to start appearing in cars thanks to General Motors. The Oldsmobile Toronado ended up being the first production vehicle to carry the invention, but these proved to do more harm than good.

By 1992, thanks to regulatory pressure from the US government, every vehicle manufactured for the US market came equipped with airbags, a milestone in driver safety.

Naturally, manufacturers soon saw the potential of airbags, realising they can be used for more than just protecting forward head movement in head-on accidents. In the mid-90s, side impact airbags started to make their way into vehicles as standard, keeping people safe in dangerous T-bone accidents as well. 

Soon, the number of airbags fitted to vehicles steadily began to climb, with front and rear passenger airbags joining the fray to keep occupants safe in any type of impact. 

Driver aids, prevention is better than a cure

While there's no disputing that the above developments saved plenty of lives over their years of evolution, engineers soon realised they could save even more lives if they reduced the likelihood of accidents happening. After all, airbags and seatbelts don't actually do anything to stop car crashes from occurring, they simply aim to mitigate their effects. 

The problem is that car control is not taught to all drivers. Sure, we can all make the car go, stop and turn safely, but when conditions begin to foul and we need to take evasive action, most of us turn into Mr Bean rather than Mr Peter Brock. 

During these adventurous manoeuvres, the skills, reactions and foresight needed to control a car safely goes beyond the realm of the casual motorist and into the domain of race car driver. Rather than try and teach the world's drivers how to deftly shift their Toyota Corolla into a perfect Scandinavian flick, manufacturers realised it was probably best just to let computers do the job. 

One of the first major developments to take the world by storm was traction control, a system that does exactly what it says on the tin. For motorists with a lead foot or a powerful car, it's easy to inadvertently lose grip, especially as conditions deteriorate and rain compromises stability. 

Traction control essentially takes your power to accelerate away from you if it detects you're misbehaving. Sensors monitor wheel speed, so if you're spinning one or both in a reckless manner, traction control systems will automatically reduce engine power. 

Electronic stability control (ESC) takes this further. Where traction control helps drivers retain control under power, ESC prevents vehicles from spinning out when changing direction, whether that's due to the need for evasive action or simply underestimating the road's conditions. 

While the car can't take control of the steering wheel for you – yet, autonomous cars are on their way – it can influence its direction in other ways. To straighten out a spinning car, ESC will change the brake pressure on certain wheels to reduce the severity of the moment. 

Autonomous emergency braking, the precursor to the future

As we said above, autonomous technology is on the rise in modern vehicles, simultaneously defining the present and the future of safety technology. Although government regulations still need to catch up with the technology to truly allow the computers to take over, manufacturers are slowly drip feeding the evolutions into modern vehicles. 

In particular, autonomous emergency braking (AEB) has been proven by ANCAP to make a noticeable difference in preventing rear-end collisions. The organisation published research that was produced in conjunction with the Australian Medical Association (AMA), using it to pilot the Avoid the crash, Avoid the trauma campaign. 

According to AMA President Professor Brian Owler, motorists can count on this technology to enhance safe driving behaviours. 

"Road safety and public health go hand in hand," he said. "Road trauma has an enormous impact on the lives of everyday Australians and our health system."

"We must do all we can to eliminate it, and governments have an important role to play, especially in working with the car industry to make cars safer, preferably by making life-saving technology like AEB standard features in all new cars."

ANCAP's figures show that AEB can reduce the chance of rear-end collisions by up to 38 per cent. Furthermore, nearly 90 per cent of all car accidents involve human error in some manner. By introducing technologies such as AEB, this risk is eliminated as computers can fill in the gaps of a driver's skill. 

Of course, this is only the start of autonomous safety developments, and the future is likely to bring further advancements. 

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