A car you can’t crash (really)

August 13, 2012, 3:00 PM UTC

Automotive safety systems that sense when a vehicle is about to crash and initiate braking and tighten seatbelts to mitigate injury are evolving into systems that can prevent some collisions entirely.

The 2013 Lexus LS460, Toyota’s (TM) luxury flagship, begins arriving in the U.S. in November with an “advanced pre-collision system” available as an option. When driving at speeds below 29 miles per hour, the system uses radar and optical sensors to determine if a car is likely to collide with a pedestrian or object ahead. The Toyota system can override a distracted, inattentive or impaired driver and bring the car to a stop prior to impact. It could prove especially helpful to preventing pedestrian injuries and deaths.

Toyota’s safety device, which one day could be equipped on many if not all vehicles, marks yet another step in the continuous automation of driving, a process that many believe leads inevitably to driverless vehicles in the not too distant future. “These kind of systems represent more progress toward driverless cars,” said Rebecca Lindland, an industry analyst for HIS automotive. “We could see the first driverless cars in ten years. People have trouble believing it. No one could believe that horses would give way to automobiles.”

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General Motors (GM), Ford Motor (F), Volkswagen and indeed most automakers and automotive suppliers are working on digital-mechanical systems that are integral to driverless or so-called autonomous driving. In two years VW’s Audi luxury division has hinted it will offer a system on its next-generation A8 flagship that allows a driver in low-speed stop-and-go freeway traffic to put the vehicle on “automatic pilot.” In this mode the vehicle automatically speeds, accelerates and stops with the flow of traffic and avoids other vehicles around it.

Toyota engineers and technicians set up a test course for journalists in a large parking lot in east Palo Alto, near Google (GOOG) headquarters, to demonstrate its new system. (Google has made headlines with it driverless car initiative.) I was among those invited to drive a prototype of the LS460 equipped with the system toward a cloth barrier depicting a graphic of a car.

After accelerating to about 30 miles per hour, I was aiming the LS460 toward the cloth target. First, a visual warning of an obstacle ahead appeared on the dashboard. Then, a chime sounded. Still, somewhat nervously, I kept my foot on the accelerator. A collision seemed inevitable when suddenly the car took control and braked us to a screeching halt just short of the barrier.

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A technician accompanying me in the front-passenger seat explained that the braking force of the system was roughly twice what a normal driver could accomplish by stamping on the pedal. Another system called the Driver Attention Monitor System trains cameras on the driver’s face and determines when a driver has become distracted, taken eyes off the road too long or has fallen asleep — and flashes a warning and sounds a chime. If those steps don’t work, the system can apply the brakes.

Though Toyota is working on autonomous driving at research and development centers in the U.S. and Japan the automaker has been reluctant to release details of when a fully autonomous car might be ready for testing. Google’s driverless car project has tested a modified Toyota Prius on public roads for over 100,000 miles without an incident beyond a minor fender-bender. In 2011 Nevada became the first state in the U.S. to modify its traffic laws to permit operation of a driverless car. Google was issued the first permit for a Prius in March of this year.

Lexus’s new LS is far from ready to drive entirely on its own. But its owners may begin to understand how the technology could work if the Advanced Pre-Collision System saves them from an accident.