There’s no doubt that the two biggest factors improving vehicle safety in the last 20 years or so have been the mandatory use of seat belts and the introduction of the European NCAP safety rating. Various studies indicate that seat belts halve the risk of death, while five-star-rated cars pose a 68% lower risk of fatal injury (and a 23% lower risk of serious injury) compared with two-star-rated cars.
But while these measures have certainly helped to improve safety for everybody on the road, the number of accidents that occur each year are still too high. In 2018, 23,400 people were killed on the roads in Europe, and the EU 27 have collectively only managed to reduce road deaths by 6% over the past five years.
We’re all dreaming of the day that autonomous vehicles will engineer these stats out of existence. But given the sheer amount of technology infrastructure we need in place for autonomous vehicles to work—not to mention the amount of legislation the world will need to make sure it works in the way it should—we’re still a long way from that dream.
ADAS is therefore playing a crucial role in bridging the gap between traditional and existing driving safety and the autonomous cars of the future
So what can we do in the meantime? As driver error accounts for around 94% of accidents—most of which involve the driver failing to recognise hazards or being distracted—many car manufacturers are already investing in advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). ADAS sensors and cameras on the car detect nearby obstacles and hazards, automatically enabling the car to respond to anything dangerous. For example, if a child walks out onto the road, ADAS cameras would detect the child and the car would brake far quicker than a driver would be able to brake themselves.
ADAS is therefore playing a crucial role in bridging the gap between traditional and existing driving safety and the autonomous cars of the future, and investment levels at the moment from automotive manufacturers are encouraging. And while ADAS is not supposed to completely replace the safety measures drivers take while they are on the road, its future involves raising the standard of safety overall.
However, car manufacturers will need to keep an eye on this technology because it is about to evolve dramatically in a number of ways over the next few years. ADAS in 2020 is a bit like smartphone technology in 2008—it has a lot of potential, initial cut through and desirable benefits, but ADAS systems in five years are going to look completely different to how they do now.
This is how ADAS is undergoing a big shift in its capabilities.
Dynamic vision sensors
One of those capabilities that’s evolving quickly is how ADAS will be able to behave in an almost human-like fashion. Dynamic vision sensors are being developed to mimic the recognition and processing power of the human eye, helping the car to see things that the driver can see, and even things that the driver cannot see or react to quickly enough. Advanced pixel technology, which has only been possible recently, can detect hazards particularly well in the dark or in gloomy environments, while its dynamic range capability enables it to detect hazards in extra-bright conditions.
Universal flash storage
Universal flash storage (UFS) is paving the way for next-generation dashboard technology to provide an array of safety features for drivers. Flash storage has a number of benefits over traditional storage when it comes to ADAS. First, it’s lightning quick—UFS enables ADAS to make decisions quickly, which is paramount for safety. Moreover, it has the ability to power on in-car systems within two seconds with near-instant data access. It’s also incredibly robust. Unlike traditional storage, which has moving parts and is prone to damaging after time, flash storage has no moving parts, and so you can be sure it will last longer than traditional storage, while also achieving fast performance even under challenging conditions, like extreme heat or continuous vibrations.
Speed-optimised circuits and high-performance computing
Just as flash storage paves the way for speed, so too do the future circuits connecting all the sensors around the car with the car’s central nervous system—and the high-performance computing technologies making the decisions on whether to take action or simply inform drivers of what’s ahead. Highly advanced, speed-optimised circuit architectures are currently being developed to transfer data from sensors around the car to its central processing unit at extreme near-instant speed. Moreover, faster graphics technology is extending cars’ ability to offer next-generation graphics on infotainment systems and dashboard displays for the driver. These technologies together enable both cars and their drivers to react even more quickly than they can now to changing hazards on the road.
LED lighting has provided a great way for high-end car manufacturers to establish a brand identity with their vehicles, but even the lights themselves can improve safety in the future. Advanced LED headlights in the next few years will be able to automatically adjust the direction of the full beam around oncoming vehicles as not to blind them, crucially while maintaining full beam on the road ahead and maintaining visibility for the first driver. This is an important technological breakthrough because LED headlights tend to be very directional, and many drivers have complained about the brightness on headlights from oncoming vehicles.
Moreover, and headlights aside, micro-LED driven taillights can convey much more information than just a mere bright red light when the driver steps on the brake. In the future, cars will be able to convey messages about what’s going on ahead, like “congestion ahead” or “pedestrians crossing” — all autonomously thanks to a close integration with dynamic vision sensors around the car.
The need to reach a global standard for safety
Advanced driver-assist systems are crucial in the journey towards full Level 5 vehicle automation. They act as the stepping stones between each level of automation as the technology itself improves.
And while manufacturers are advancing these technologies as we speak, they’re also investing in the technologies that will one day underpin the Level 5 autonomous vehicle. Technologies like 5G, IoT, artificial intelligence and machine learning all need to work in perfect harmony for autonomous vehicles to be a reality. If one of those technologies isn’t up to the task, it’ll let down the whole ecosystem. None of these technologies will want the label of the “weakest link” when it comes to underpinning automotive safety.
But one aspect that will take even more time than the development of technology will be the establishment of legislation. At the moment, the world lacks a definitive framework for dictating how safe a self-driving car must be before it’s allowed on the road. In the US alone, for example, legislation around autonomous vehicles differs from state to state. It’s therefore crucial that governments around the world work together to establish a common framework based on significant testing.
Once that’s in place, it’ll be up there with seat belts and NCAP as the biggest factors addressing vehicle safety—only it’ll do far more than both of those combined at eliminating accidents for good.
About the author: Thomas Arenz is Director of Samsung Semiconductor Europe