If there is anything that the rise of microprocessors has shown us, it is that very little separates the wildest idea from realization. Fifty years ago, the notion of a driverless car was sci-fi fare. Nowadays it is not a matter of if, but when.
Mind you, driver-assist systems in vehicles have been the norm for a long time. In the 1940s, the engineering breakthrough was the automatic transmission; 10 years later it was power steering and braking. Up until the debut of microelectronics in the 1980s, though, the push to make driving safer, easier, and more comfortable superseded automation efforts.
Technology's Cascade Effect
Even though there is concern about the side effects of the electronic direction of automotive evolution, all agree that today's automobile is an impressive, space-age vehicle when compared to its forbearers. A great way to appreciate the array of features available to the buyer is to sit in the driver's seat of a new model. Ignore the salesman's hype and focus instead on the wonder of the dashboard, the ergonomics of the seating, and the reassuring presence of the safety features. The microprocessor networks that govern vehicle operation promise responsiveness beyond the ability of human perception and reaction. Even tricky maneuvers like parallel parking, changing lanes in traffic, and reversing with poor visibility have on-board alternatives to override human error.
Auto Technology's Stars
Let's take a closer look at some of the above-mentioned safety innovations offered on today's vehicles.
There are several real-world accident scenarios that demonstrate how stability control intervenes to control or minimize yaw, the first of which is roadway obstacles. Avoiding a road hazard is probably the most common emergency maneuver for any driver. Examples include dodging truck-tire debris on a freeway; a ball being chased by a child in pursuit; and a bounding deer illuminated in the headlights of an oncoming car. Any of these is enough to ignite an adrenaline rush, but will the driver choose the brakes or steering wheel?
With ABS brakes, the pulsing brake pedal during a panic stop is a feedback reminder to the driver that ABS has intervened to prevent skidding while delivering the fastest possible braking. Should the driver choose to steer away from the obstacle, the wheel sensors in the stability control module combine forces with the yaw sensor to detect spin potential and then the ABS module will selectively apply brakes to the wheel(s) to keep the vehicle on its intended path.
Challenges for Insurers, Investigators
While driver-assist technologies can improve crash statistics, no electronic innovation to date can completely eliminate the interaction of physics and human error. ABS will prevent wheel skidding on icy roads, but the stopping distance could still be up to 10 times that of dry-road conditions. Excessive vehicle speeds in turns can still be a causative factor in an accident even if the stability control system performs as designed to ameliorate the consequences of poor decision-making. At least for now, microprocessors have not wiped out the need for auto insurance coverage.