Crash avoidance Ford’s new focus

Vehicle safety has come a long way since the deep-dish steering wheel, padded instrument panel and lap belts of the 1950s. Now that the interior of the modern car is filled with air bags of all sizes and configurations that pop out in the event of collision, safety engineers are looking at new ways to help minimize injuries.

Paul Mascarenas, Ford’s vice-president of global product development, says today’s consumers have a huge appetite for safety in all aspects of their lives, well beyond the vehicle in the driveway. Products are emerging every day that are designed to feed that demand for improved safety.

For example, Ford will be offering inflatable rear shoulder belts in the next-generation Explorer when it goes into production in 2010. The strap that stretches across the upper torso has a built-in air bag that inflates when a collision is detected, helping to dissipate the energy of the crash across the occupant’s body. It will help reduce painful injuries sustained from traditional seat belts, especially in children and adults of small stature, as well as seniors, many of whom are often rear-seat passengers. A similar system will be standard in the new Lexus LF-A supercar when it hits the streets, too, but that two-seater exotic costs about US$375,000.

Mascarenas says Ford’s goal is to make such safety technologies affordable for the masses.

While such improvements in air bag and other restraint systems continue, Mascarenas says safety engineers at Ford are also shifting their focus from occupant protection in the event of a crash to creating technologies that help avoid a collision. One of the systems in step with this new trend comes right from the fighter jets of Top Gun. Ford is using radar-based systems to help mitigate the severity of rear-end collisions – or even eliminate their occurrence.

A sophisticated third-generation radar system mounted in the front of the vehicle scans the road about 100 metres ahead, then sorts through the various objects it detects and determines ones that could pose a danger.

If, for example, a vehicle ahead suddenly slows or stops, the system alerts the driver using both an audible alarm as well as a red light bar displayed on the windshield. If the closing rate continues to indicate a potentially dangerous situation, the system pre-charges the brakes so the full stopping force is immediately available when the driver does react. Scrubbing off even eight kilometres an hour of speed can reduce the impact of a crash by 25%, says Ford.

In the United States, it’s expected this type of system could help prevent or reduce the severity of 2.5 million rear-end crashes, which account for 40% of all vehicle collisions. Independent research suggests one second of warning would make 90% of such crashes entirely avoidable. Ford’s system is programmable by the driver, depending on his or her style of driving, to provide 1.5 to 2.5 seconds of warning before contact. The lead time can also be tailored to suit the preferences of up to two drivers.

Ford is already offering the system on its 2010 Taurus – it’s available as a stand-alone option for $1,500. It can also be ordered on the Lincoln MKS and MKT, and availability will be expanded when the 2011 Ford Explorer, Edge and Lincoln MKX go into production next year. Mascarenas says the take rate on current models is already exceeding the company’s expectations, with one in four buyers opting for the feature.

Ford’s safety engineering team provided a unique demonstration of the system at its Dearborn proving grounds. A large car-shaped balloon was suspended from a boom attached to a modified Lincoln Navigator. The task was to approach the target dangling from the slow-moving SUV at a good clip – about 64 km/h in a new Taurus – but resist hitting the brakes until the warning signals were activated. (There were no bonus points for nailing the balloon.) It was impressive how the system picked up the obstacle ahead and gave due warning. When I did go for the brakes, the pedal was already firm and responded instantly, allowing me to easily rein in the Taurus without contact.

The beauty of the system is that it utilizes components and technologies already incorporated into the vehicle, in this case its radar-based adaptive speed control, which adjusts a vehicle’s speed in cruise mode when approaching a slower vehicle, then restores the selected cruising rate once that vehicle has been passed.

Similarly, Ford is putting a rear-mounted sensing system to multiple uses.

The radar units mounted behind the rear quarter panels initially were intended to provide blind spot warnings when another vehicle was detected from the rear as the driver initiated a lane change – a valuable safety feature that’s being offered by a growing number of manufacturers. However, Ford has also adapted the system to detect cross traffic when backing up.

Instead of having to reverse blindly out of a parking spot between two big SUVs – a common scenario at shopping malls during Boxing Day – the sensors scan the roadway for 15 metres to the left and right, searching for any vehicles that may be closing on your car’s exposed back end. A distinct audible alarm alerts the driver about impending trouble, hopefully avoiding a collision.

By using such technologies for several applications, manufacturers are able to make such safety features as affordable as many of the comfort and convenience items we readily add to our order list – and that’s going to be good for everyone.