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The head of Hyundai in Africa and the Middle East is predicting a revolution in car safety in the next five years, as a wave of mass-market models that can predict and automatically respond to danger arrives in showrooms.
Today’s new cars already rate highly for protecting drivers and passengers in a collision – what is called ‘passive safety’.
Mike Song, the Korean carmaker’s head of operations in the region, says we are now entering a new era of ‘active safety’ as carmakers race to offer the best possible collision avoidance technology in forthcoming models.
“There has never seen so much competition to build the safest car,” he said. “When you think of the basic crash protection equipment – seatbelts, head restraints, crumple zones, airbags and so on – these things arrived very gradually over decades. We are now seeing this level of innovation in the space of five or six years, and new features are moving from the luxury segment into mass-market cars incredibly fast.”
Current models already include active safety features such as anti-lock braking systems (ABS) and electronic stability control (ESC) to reduce the risk of the car skidding or spinning in an emergency. They help drivers keep the car under control, but still rely on the driver to respond.
“Many accidents happen because drivers are too slow to react, and that is true even for good, careful drivers,” added Mr Song. “By the time we see the danger, we don’t have time to apply the brakes or turn the steering wheel, and we do not instinctively understand the way the car behaves when we brake or swerve.”
Carmakers want to overcome this human factor. At Hyundai alone, the most recent models combine a package of innovations as ‘Hyundai Smart Sense’, which includes Autonomous Emergency Braking, Lane Keeping Assist, Active Blind Spot Detection, Driver Attention Alert, Advanced Smart Cruise Control and Around View Monitor.
Many of the building blocks of the initiative come from the company’s research and development programme for driverless vehicles.
“In its most simple terms, by combining a front-mounted sensor with the ABS and cruise control systems, the car can detect danger and apply the brakes automatically, either stopping or slowing down,” explained Mr Song.
“Side-mounted sensors can detect when the car is wandering across a white line or there is car next to you, and tell the power steering to keep you in your lane. Because of the way we can connect all these systems, and the processing power now available, the car can see and respond to danger much faster than a human.”
Being able to offer this level of safety is an important selling point, with independent tests such as the NCAP ‘new car assessment programmes’ giving consumers a benchmark for comparing their options and making an informed decision. The US introduced the first NCAP crash tests in the late 1970s, and most high-income countries had introduced similar assessments by the end of the 1990s. The past decade has seen programmes for a growing number of developing economies, with testing either in place or being planned for most car markets.
“NCAP testing constantly pushes us to build safer cars, to make each new generation safer than the last, and tells buyers whether we succeed or fail,” said Mr Song. “For a new model to achieve a five-star safety rating is a source of pride and helps increase sales. A low rating would not just be an embarrassment, but would also make many customers walk away. In five years’ time, a car that doesn’t respond to danger won’t be considered completely safe anymore.”