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Safety Technology Demonstration
By David Nguyen

Had a nice morning earlier this week when I attended a demonstration event at RFK stadium. It was a demo of the latest safety technologies from a number of suppliers to the auto industry. It's one thing to read about these features and another thing to experience them in action. Items of note were stability control systems, smart cruise control, radar, and seatbelts. Yes, seatbelts. It was all very interesting.

First, stability control was the main focus. These systems will back off the engine power and pulse individual brakes at each wheel to help regain control of a vehicle that has gone or is going out of control. One demo vehicle had 4 roof mounted brake lights to show which wheels were being braked and when. For example, the SUV was turning right and sliding. The left brake lights pulsed more than the right which helped straighten out the car and regain stability.

Another demo was in a large tractor trailer. It was fitted with wheeled outriggers (like training wheels) that were high off the ground. Once the truck rolled over the wheels would catch and the vehicle wouldn't tip over completely. The strange thing about trucks is that it's so gradual you don't notice you're rolling until it's too late - generally you look in the side mirror and see the ground is at a 45 degree angle. Anyway, with roll stability on it made a huge difference and the trucks stopped picking up their wheels and rolling over.

Finally, I did few runs in a BMW 3 Series with the stability control system on and then off. It was noticeably more stable and controlled when I had the system on and just chucked the car around. No need for a lot of finesse (though finesse is not a bad thing, most people just don't have it for driving).

Moving on to other demos, smart radar to alert you to blind spots on either side of your car, as well as when you're leaving your lane unintentionally, like say if you fell asleep behind the wheel. Smart cruise control also backed off the throttle and gently applied the brakes when you closed in on the car ahead too quickly.

Finally, I got to be a crash test dummy. Not as serious as it sounds. There was a Smart car set up on a sled on a trailer. The purpose was to test seatbelts by slamming the car to a stop equivalent to a 6.5 mph collision with a solid wall. With the regular seatbelts, it was fairly violent even at that speed. However, with a pretensioning seatbelt that could detect when a collision was imminent, it would tighten up a little just before the collision and pick up the slack. The result was a much less violent impact with the "wall". Now before you rush out and buy a car with belts like these, they're only available on S, R, and M class Mercedes models at the moment. But in time we'll see them on more vehicles. I think they're worth it.

Finally, I was a passenger in a BMW 5 Series for a test run. I didn't find out until after, but if they're going to be like this, we'll be seeing a lot more of them. It was a Euro-spec 535d which is apparently diesel. But you could not tell unless you were standing behind it while idling and hear a faint glimpse of the diesel engine. It was that quiet. And torquey too. I have seen the near future, and itís good.

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Posted July 20, 2006

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