Crash Test Smarties
How intelligent built-in safety features could help us avoid the big one.
By Krysten Crawford

(Business 2.0) – It happens to the best of us. Hurtling down the freeway, we get distracted and take our eyes off the road. Usually we regain our focus and cruise merrily along. But when the driver in the car ahead suddenly slams on his brakes ... well, it's a good thing some brilliant automotive engineer dreamed up the airbag.

Of course, it'd be even better if, in those distracted split seconds, our car could fill in for our eyes and brain--sensing the trouble approaching and slowing itself down. Fortunately, a number of brilliant automotive engineers are working on just this sort of thing. DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz and Toyota's Lexus divisions are racing toward that goal with select models that now come with optional radar to help prevent rear-end collisions. The 2007 Mercedes S-Class, due out in the United States by February, will come with long- and short-range radar embedded in the front bumper to assist drivers using cruise control, monitoring the gap between the car and the one in front of it. If the distance is too small or the closing speed too high, an internal alarm sounds. Once the driver hits the brakes, the car itself applies the pressure necessary to avoid a crash.

Mercedes claims that as a result of the radar system, accident rates for the S-Class fell by 75 percent in company tests. Why not 100 percent? Because the braking mechanism doesn't kick in until the driver applies the brakes. Roland Bachmann, the senior manager for passive safety at Mercedes-Benz, says the technical know-how to build an autonomous braking system exists today. The challenge is customer buy-in: Will drivers be willing to let the car take over? "We think the day will come," Bachmann says.

Detroit, too, thinks the day will come, and is also starting to steer in the direction of the autonomous car. The 2006 Cadillac DTS sedan, for instance, features an automatic high- and low-beam switch. Acting on data captured by a light-sensing device mounted behind the rearview mirror, the high beams turn on in darkness and dim when another car is near.

Ed Zellner, GM's vehicle chief engineer, thinks that in the next five years we'll see cars that can avoid crashes with drivers barely lifting a finger. "The technology is basically there," he says. But price remains a big roadblock. "There gets to be a cost threshold with these things," Zellner admits. A survey released by J.D. Power in August seems to concur. With no mention of cost, consumers ranked four emerging safety features as the technologies they'd most want in a new vehicle. When price came into play, however, the survey respondents pulled a U-turn and instead put a premium on high-definition radio and surround sound. Here's hoping they don't take their eyes off the road while playing air guitar to the latest from Crash Test Dummies. -- K.C.