Advanced safety solutions at the heart of an autonomous future

The most exciting time ever for safety technology? Autoliv’s VP Research thinks so. Ola Boström talks to Michael Nash about active safety system development and the impact of autonomous driving

Active safety systems are evolving at a rapid rate, with vehicle manufacturers constantly seeking to remain at least one step ahead of the regulators. In March 2016, the US Department of Transportation’s (DOT’s) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) announced that 20 OEMs had committed to making automatic emergency braking systems (AEBS) standard on their models by September 2022.

Estimates from the IIHS suggest that this commitment alone will prevent as many as 28,000 crashes and 12,000 injuries over the course of about three years. Many OEMs, however, have already been offering AEBS for some time, as well as a variety of other active safety solutions fitted ahead of any mandate.

The OEMs are not alone in seeking to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to developing and deploying advanced active safety systems. Several suppliers are also looking to lead the way, with many sensing significant market opportunities around futuristic concepts and ideas. With such rapid advances in driver assistance technology, the prospect of semi- and fully-autonomous cars becomes increasingly realistic. As the OEMs’ products evolve, so the parts and systems that go into those cars also need to evolve and adapt.

This is the most exciting time ever for passive safety, for active safety, and for the integration of all these solutions into the passenger car space

Swedish safety supplier Autoliv has a host of new and innovative technologies pencilled in for launch over the next decade and beyond. That’s according to Ola Boström, the supplier’s Vice President, Research, who talked through the challenges and opportunities of preparing safety technology and equipment for autonomous driving.

“We are making some great progress in terms of pushing forward with safety tech, but I can’t give you a specific timeline for our solutions,” he teased during an interview at CES 2017. “We would like to become more transparent in our expectations, but at the same time I don’t believe in launching everything as fast as possible in one car model. We don’t want to treat humans as guinea pigs, so we believe in taking things step by step.”

Platforms are in place

In terms of safety, even a baby step like reducing risk of serious injury by 5% is highly significant for the automotive industry, Boström continued. This could have an impact on many thousands of people every year. According to the US National Safety Council: ‘…the number of motor-vehicle deaths in 2016 totaled 40,200, up 6% from 2015 and the first time the annual fatality total has exceeded 40,000 since 2007. The 2016 estimate is provisional and may be revised when more data are available. The total for 2016 was up 14% from the 2014 figure. The annual total for 2015 was 37,757, a 7% increase from 2014. The 2014 figure was less than 0.5% higher than 2013.’

NHTSA data also shows a rise in recent US road traffic fatalities, and in Europe, recent data shows a plateau in previously declining road traffic deaths; around 25-26,000 people die on the roads of the European Union each year.

“It will take time to deploy technologies that reduce these statistics, because it’s so important that we get them absolutely right,” Boström acknowledged. “However, at the same time I think we are advancing quite quickly, and there will be more innovative solutions from Autoliv coming out in the near future.”

If the OEM is saying that people can relax or recline all the way back in their seat, they must comply with crash tests using those positions. The good news is that there are tools for this

The reason behind Boström’s optimism is that there are already fundamental technologies in place that are vital for the deployment of others. “Emergency braking, for example, is becoming a standard in the Western world,” he noted. “This tech alone is an important prerequisite for a whole range of features, like adaptive cruise control.”

Cameras and radars, he continued, are now considered standard automotive technology. This is providing many new opportunities for safety systems suppliers. “About 15 years ago, this type of hardware just didn’t exist in vehicles, so developing new advanced passive safety features didn’t really count for anything. Now they have fully penetrated the industry, and cars are even designed around the hardware. It’s opening up so many new doors and expanding possibilities.”

Autonomous vehicle progress

Looking further ahead, Boström considered the potential of bridging the gap between advanced active safety features and highly automated vehicles (HAVs). Just as features like emergency braking are crucial for the development of next-generation active safety technologies, so cameras and radars are vital for the realisation of autonomous vehicles. This goes for those that are semi-autonomous, in which driver attention is still extremely important, all the way up to HAVs.

“We’re involved in several projects that have autonomous vehicle development at the core,” Boström noted. “We recently announced that we are taking part in a programme with 30 different partners to understand how drivers interact with highly automated driving solutions, called ADAS&ME. This understanding is one of the critical parts in moving from passive safety features to fully automated driving.”

If autonomous vehicle development is to continue progressing, Boström thinks that a strong regulatory framework needs to be in place to support on-going tests. The US, he added, is currently ahead of the game and leading the way, as many OEMs have licenses to test their autonomous vehicle technologies on public roads.

“When it comes to the public deployment of different levels of autonomous cars, a regulatory framework is absolutely essential. But when it comes to developing autonomous driving tech, I would say that it’s a race in the automotive space at the moment,” he noted.

Boström also highlighted Sweden as a potential hub for autonomous vehicle deployment in the future. He referred to Volvo’s Drive Me project that is currently being hosted in Gothenburg and is soon to be rolled out in London and later in other major cities. “As well as ADAS&ME, we’re also a partner in Drive Me, and we have sat down with Volvo, Swedish authorities, universities, city planners and other suppliers to discuss the challenges and prospects for autonomous cars,” he revealed. “I’m confident that, because we are having these discussions in Sweden already, the realisation of autonomous vehicle deployment will come much quicker than in those countries not having such discussions.”

Into the virtual world

While the establishment of regulations and the progress with on-going projects is important, Boström was eager to stress that both passive and active safety must remain at the heart of all vehicle development.

“When it comes to looking at the future of autonomous vehicles, Autoliv takes a broad stance on safety,” he observed. “Take the recent guidelines published by NHTSA on the testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles, for example. It is very clear that these vehicles cannot be treated differently when it comes to active safety – they must still comply with the same crash tests. We agree wholeheartedly with this.”

He described the current crash tests that are carried out by IIHS, which evaluate vehicles on two primary aspects of safety, namely crashworthiness and crash avoidance. The cars are rated good, acceptable, marginal or poor based on their performance in five tests: moderate overlap front, small overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraints.

As well as doing thousands of tests in a matter of hours, simulation tools give the added benefit of including human body models with active muscles. The level of detail we can get into is incredible

Independent crash testing methods evolve constantly to accommodate new technologies and trends. One aspect of crash testing that will surely need to change is the positioning of the dummies.

Just as in all crash testing, the IIHS uses crash test dummies which are placed in upright, forward-facing positions, as human vehicle occupants would sit in a car today. “This means, of course, that the occupants of an autonomous vehicle won’t be able to lie down. If the OEM is saying that people can relax or recline all the way back in their seat, they must comply with crash tests using those positions,” Boström mused. “The good news is that there are tools for this.”

Virtual simulation of crash tests could become increasingly important as the automotive industry moves forward with autonomous vehicle development, and Boström thinks simulation could be used to include detail in crash tests that would not be achievable through physical crash tests.

“As well as doing thousands of tests in a matter of hours, simulation tools give the added benefit of including human body models with active muscles,” he described. “We can even adjust the size of the occupant’s liver, for example, to see how the impact of a crash moves it. The level of detail we can get into is incredible.”

Euro NCAP, which marks its twentieth anniversary in 2017, could be an early adopter of some virtual simulation alongside physical tests, suggests Boström, with the IIHS soon to follow suit. However, he cautions, physical tests are likely to still be around for at least another decade, primarily because they give the consumer hard evidence as to what can happen.

“I’ve been at Autoliv for over 20 years, and I can tell you without a doubt that this is the most exciting time ever for passive safety, for active safety, and for the integration of all these solutions into the passenger car space,” Boström concluded.

This article appeared in the Q1 2017 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine.

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