Since the invention of the internal combustion engine in 1886, discussions on automobile safety have mostly been centered on reducing the physical impact of collision—assuming accidents as the only point of concern, engineers focused on limiting the extent of the damage.
Such a view, if appearing a bit passive today, was natural at the time. For most of modern history, cars have been a simple means of transport, and the only concern for safety during transport is limiting physical damage and injury from accidents. Indeed, to that end, car engineers have been developing such passive safety features as the seatbelt, the airbag, and sturdier car bodies.
A Brief History of Automobile Safety
The concept of automobile safety was not born with the automobile. In the late 19th century and the early 20th century, the early years of the automobile, people did not care about automobile safety at all and neglected to equip cars with safety features. That made sense; with cars being slow and rare, car accidents were a rarity. But when they did occur, the damage to the passengers was enormous due to the lack of any protective mechanism.
Well into the 20th century, though, the need for general automobile safety became glaring. Cars were becoming faster; they were also becoming a staple of modern lifestyle. With more cars on the road at higher speeds, the number of accidents soared, and the car manufacturers began installing some basic safety features on their vehicles. In 1911, room mirrors were born to give the driver a much-needed look at the rear; in 1922, the hydraulic brake system still in use today was born. In 1938, flicking turn indicators were applied to mass-produced cars for the first time; around 1940, a good 50 years after the birth of the automobile, cars were beginning to be equipped with the ever-useful side mirrors.
The 1950s marked a remarkable advancement in passive car safety features, the most important of which was the development of the 3-point seat belt in 1959. The concept of the safety belt was developed in the 1930s in the motorsport sector; the races at the time often had the driver thrown out of the race car when it collided or came to a sudden stop, highlighting the need for seatbelt’s development. Until the 1960s, though, the most prominently used seatbelt type was 2-point, which only fastened to the driver’s stomach. The 2-point seatbelts held the driver tight in the seat, but the driver’s upper body was often thrust forward in an accident, resulting in a fatal collision of the face or the chest to the dashboard. With the development of the 3-point seatbelt, such injuries were made much less likely.
The next innovation to automobile safety came with airbags. Developed in 1968, the airbag was widely commercialized in the 1980s to reach its current staple status. Meanwhile, the concept of ‘crumple zone,’ which was built into the car body design to protect the passenger seating area, was introduced in 1952. Until then, manufacturers worked only to make the car body sturdier, neglecting more advanced concepts like absorbing and dispersing the force from the impact of collision.
All in all, the 20th century’s advancements in automobile safety were passive in concept—clear technological limitations made more active interventions impossible. The ideas for more active accident prevention technology were already in circulation in the early 20th century; it’s just that those ideas fell outside the reach of the era’s technological capabilities.
The concept for ABS (Anti-lock Brake System) was also flushed out during the early-to-mid 20th century, but the electronic version similar to today’s wasn’t introduced until 1978. The sensor capable of detecting the precise number of wheel revolutions and the mechanism that could control the brake dozens of times per second, both of which are critical to the modern ABS, had become feasible only in the 1970s.
The next evolution in line was ESC (Electronic Stability Control), a mechanism that more actively controls the movement of the vehicle to prevent accidents. Developed in 1995, ESC uses the information accrued by various sensors to detect whether the vehicle is in normal driving condition. If abnormalities are detected, the system intervenes and controls the powertrain and the brakes. Requiring separate sensors for measuring the wheel speed, steering angle, acceleration pedal force, pressure, swivel speed, and lateral acceleration in addition to the ability to precisely control the car body, ESC could only be realized only 100 years after the car’s invention.
More recently, the trend has been to develop more active and complex safety systems like ADAS, which is capable of drastically limiting the possibility of accidents caused by driver’s mistakes or even those caused by external circumstances. The development and the spread of the ADAS technology are expected to pave the way to the age of fully autonomous cars.
The future of automobile safety is expected to encompass a far wider range than ever before, because the automobile industry is facing the paradigm-shifting change called M.E.C.A. Standing for Mobility, Electrification, Connectivity, and Autonomous, the newly coined term represents the four dimensions of automobile evolution in the future.
The advent of M.E.C.A. stands to expand the very role of the automobile in everyday life, and the range of automobile safety too will expand and diversify in accordance. The tasks ahead are varied and challenging: safety issues in shared cars and self-driving cars, hacking protection for connected car systems, addressing errors in electronic equipment, ensuring the security of private information, and even public relations to improve trust in the new technology are some of the more immediate problems in need of resolution.
Problems in the mobility service area are concentrated in the service provider’s end—that is, the drivers hired by the service. Today, the passengers must overcome significant psychological hurdles in trusting the drivers-for-hire. For example, China’s largest car-sharing firm Didi Chuxing had two cases in May and August 2018 where the passengers were murdered by the hired drivers. The news had the effect of substantially dipping the firms’ number of users per month, from 98.9 million in Dec. 2017 to 90.5 million in Dec. 2018.
Problems in the electrification area are usually associated with the battery of electric cars. Upon collision, electric car batteries come with the danger of enflaming and/or exploding. In fact, in March 2018, an accident occurred in the United States in which the battery of the electric car exploded and killed the driver. Fires and explosions resulting from quick charging cannot be neglected either, especially given the possibility of second-hand damage like toxic gas spillage.
As cars became connected to smartphones and the internet, an unprecedented issue emerged as well: hacking. Hacked smart keys could lead to automobile theft, and hacked infotainment systems could lead to theft of personal information. In 2016 for example, Uber’s service database was hacked, leading to the leakage of over 57 million users’ account information. Not limited to outside attacks, internal system errors from more complicated software protocols could also lead to accidents as well.
Most experts see around 2030 as the time when fully self-driving cars will populate the road. But given the news of many accidents coming from self-driving cars in test driving, the public is not yet inclined to trust the technology. In a Jan. 2019 survey of the American public by the American Automobile Association on the degree of faith in self-driving technology, 71% of the respondents said that they “do not trust” the technology behind the self-driving cars. Much work needs to be done, then, before the technology can get enough backing from the public to be implemented smoothly.
The Meaning of Safety in the Age of Complete Vehicle Autonomy
When in 2030 the level-5 autonomous cars (with full driving automation) emerge, human beings will not need to be involved in driving at all. In such a world, the meaning of automobile safety will naturally change significantly. Instead of human drivers’ mistakes, unprecedented sources of accidents like system errors or infrastructure hacking can threaten automobile safety.
In a 2018 R&D report on the operation of and infrastructure development for autonomous cars by Korea’s Road Traffic Authority, the arrival of the level-3 autonomous cars (with human intervention in dangerous circumstances) is said to require new testing schemes for driver’s licenses, which will specifically instruct the drivers when and how to correctly intervene with the auto-driving systems.
When the level-4 autonomous cars (self-driving in certain circumstances) arrive, the report expects human licenses to be abolished and replaced by system licenses—that is, the manufacturers will be required to pass their AI and/or autonomous driving systems through the license tests administered by the government.
One important objective of self-driving cars has always been reducing accidents; as technology develops, it is reasonable to predict that the AI will avoid accidents better than humans. But however meticulously designed, no system is immaculate. Flaws in the code, system errors and mishandling, and cyber attacks and communication security breaches could foreseeably result in accidents as well. The bigger problem here is the question of liability. When the systems are to blame, who needs to pay? The self-driving cars will thus be equipped with sensors to record the accident at the system level (beyond just the visual recording of the black box), which will then be reviewed by the pertinent authorities with government-approved systems for liability evaluation.
Technical and policy preparations for these hard-to-predict accidents of the future are already underway. On the technical front, engineers are working to write AI algorithms that can judge and control any situation to prevent accidents from mechanical failures; on the policy front, preliminary discussions are being had on writing the bills to make the aforementioned system for liability evaluation.
Of course, imagination alone cannot prepare for the future; concrete experiments must accompany that imagination. Indeed, many countries have built virtual road environments to conduct various studies on autonomous driving. In 2015, The United States built inside the University of Michigan the world’s first proving ground for testing the performance and safety of automated vehicles, Mcity. In Korea, Pangyo Zero City and Hwasung’s K-City exist today as domestic testing environments for automated vehicles.
Manufacturers Prepare for Automobile Safety in M.E.C.A. age
With the times changing quickly, the car manufacturers are swiftly moving to prepare for the age of M.E.C.A. Volvo, Daimler AG, Ford, and Toyota, for example, have presented their visions for the future of automobile safety. The advent of the M.E.C.A. age and the accompanying safety issues are pressing these manufacturers to expand and diversify the existing concept of automobile safety.
While there may be some differences in the specifics, the overall direction of the manufacturers’ visions is aligned. In the mobility service area, improving the car quality to further prevent accidents is the general direction; in the security service area, blockchain technology is being investigated as central defense to hacking. The recently established MOBI (Mobility Open Blockchain Initiative), co-founded by the finished car manufacturers BMW, GM, Ford, and the parts manufacturers Denso and Bosch, is an example of such an effort. In the car-hailing service area, efforts are being made to better educate the drivers as well as to track and monitor the hired cars’ movement to ensure passenger safety.
In the electrification area, manufacturers are working from the blueprint to improve collision resistance, thus minimizing dangers like fire and explosion. Cooperating with the fire department to support rapid fire fighting activities and reducing the damage in the event of a fire is another avenue being discussed. Renault, in fact, is already cooperating with the French National Fire Service. Using the research results from the Fire Services, Renault is designing its electric cars to be especially fire-extinguishable; moreover, it is working with the fire department to construct a new protocol for rapid responses to roadside fires.
In the connectivity area, the development of Smart Maintenance technology, which assesses the car’s situation in real-time, appears imminent. Already having taken its first step with OTA (Over the Air), the technology’s ultimate objective is to have a centrally connected network of all cars to completely eliminate situations that can lead to accidents. Although sounding futuristic, OTA is already visible in our everyday life. Upon recognizing that one of its models’ infotainment system was vulnerable to hacking, TESLA, for example, used OTA to resolve more than 90% of the model’s vulnerability issue within a mere 13 days. Had it not used OTA, the standard resolution protocol would have required a massive recall taking over several months.
The culmination of the connectivity technology can, in theory, nearly eliminate accidents resulting from a lack of maintenance or unexpected car breakdowns. And even when accidents do occur, real-time communication with the central system will avail quick emergency rescue.
In the autonomous vehicle area, many brands are co-working to establish new safety standards and to support the development of relevant technologies. A consortium for standardizing autonomous vehicles’ safety standards was recently established, for example, thanks to the collaboration of Toyota, GM, and Ford with the Society of Autonomous Engineers (SAE) in the United States. Through the consortium, the three manufacturers were able to standardize autonomous vehicles’ safety testing guidelines and data collection and sharing protocols.
Furthermore, new interfaces are being developed to alleviate the drivers’ worries over the self-driving technology, as well as new forms of communication technology between cars and pedestrians. Driver monitoring technology for ensuring the driver’s full attention on the road (even while the car is self-driving) is another core technology in development. As the current level-2 technology evolves into complete autonomous vehicles of the future, safety standards will also need to evolve correspondingly, step by step.
Hyundai Responds to the Expanding Range of Automobile Safety
With the wide commercialization of mobility service and electric cars, the age of M.E.C.A. is increasingly becoming real. Responding to this global trend, the Hyundai Motor Group is executing a preemptive, forward-looking safety strategy. The new strategy will take into account the expanding paradigms of automobile safety and comprehensively take control of all of its facets.
The existing car safety features focused on responding to the inevitable occurrences of accidents on road; the safety features of the M.E.C.A. age, in contrast, consider all circumstances concerning the car, including stopping, getting on & off the vehicle, passenger and external conditions, as potential sources of problems. Responding to all such contingencies and protecting both the passengers and the pedestrians is the Hyundai’s core objective. In practice, this objective will result in the development of innovative safety features that continue to expand our existing understanding of automobile safety.
Hyundai’s recent installation of ROA (Rear Occupant Alert) on GV80 is one example of this objective’s early returns. Also in final development is the air-purifying technology that automatically shuts the car windows and cycles the air indoors when fine dust and harmful gases are detected. Hyundai is also establishing protocols for quick responses to potential automobile breakdowns and working hard to apply the most advanced algorithms to ensure security for its infotainment softwares.