With our roads becoming more congested, and arguably the condition of our roads becoming compromised as a result, it’s reassuring to learn that the technology behind seatbelts is becoming more advanced.
The Telegraph reports:
Ahead of Road Safety Week from November 21-27, it’s approaching 60 years since Volvo patented the three-point safety belt we now take for granted. Legislation and gruesome advertising have caused the majority of us to buckle up without a second thought, but although these days a full complement of airbags influences our choice of car, we pay scant further attention to the thing that protects us the most, writes Jack Carfrae.
In 1959, Volvo’s patented three-point seatbelt became a standard feature in the Amazon, the first production car to be so equipped. No other single passive safety feature has been anywhere near as significant: it is estimated that at least one million lives have been saved by the three-point seatbelt over the course of its 57-year existence.
In its basic form, as pioneered by Nils Bohlin at Volvo, the seatbelt barely changed for the best part of 40 years, but the latest systems have quietly transformed the safety of modern cars.
Richard Cuerden, chief scientist at the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), said: “In the Nineties, we started seeing some smarter things, such as pre-tensioning seatbelts. A pre-tensioner does what it says; it’s got a little electric motor that tightens the belt around you really early in the crash phase, in about 20 milliseconds, so it removes the slack and you don’t travel forward and hit the belt webbing.”
Development quickened during the decade, and load limiters wormed their way into cars in the late Nineties, becoming commonplace from the turn of the century.
Cuerden explained: “If you’re involved in a frontal crash and it’s severe enough, you’re going to get injuries from a fixed seatbelt, because the loads are going to transfer to your chest, which would predictably break your ribs, or worse.
“When that load hits a certain point that’s going to be injurious to you, say six kilonewtons, these days the seatbelt pays out webbing in a controlled way, and allows you to move forward into the airbag to better manage your energy.”
The bonging sound you hear when you drive off unbuckled is more than just a reminder, as certain manufacturers, including Mercedes, now have systems that alter the performance of the airbag deployment depending on whether or not the individual is strapped in. The next step is intelligent technology that can fine-tune the combination of seatbelts and airbags depending on the severity of the crash – and the occupant’s size, shape and even age.
Cuerden said: “We now want to see what we call smarter, adaptive systems, which would know a little bit more about you and the crash that’s about to happen.
“For instance, if I’m a young male having a violent crash, I don’t want too much seatbelt load-limiting; I want to be retained in my seat as best I can, and I want a big airbag. However, if I’m a 70-year-old female driver involved in a more moderate crash, I want quite a lot of load-limiting and a less stiff airbag.”
Modern sensors can already detect a crash before it happens, although Cuerden claims the software needs tweaking to reach the next level and to better react to different types of accidents. As for how the car recognises and prepares for its particular occupant, there are a couple of ways in which it can be done.
Cuerden said: “Either you tell it ‘I’m driver one’ – you key in some information in advance, sit in your position and it knows who you are – or [the car] makes some assumptions via a sensor in the seat base, perhaps about your weight and your seating position; if you’re sat very far forward, or sat very far back.”
He believes there’s no reason that vehicles fitted with the likes of automatic emergency braking systems (now common, using camera- and/or radar-based technology to apply the brakes automatically when an imminent front-end collision is detected) couldn’t graduate to reactive safety systems today.
“There’s no reason why we couldn’t start seeing that this year or next. The barrier, traditionally, has been the cost of sensors, but they’re common on cars now and there’s no extra cost to add that to the seatbelt. Changing your seatbelt characteristics is new cost – but it’s fairly insignificant, so the traditional cost argument, I think, has diminished.
“The big case for [this technology] is our ageing population. As more of us drive later in life, we’re more vulnerable, so it’s desirable to develop restraint systems that can [adapt to] protect the most vulnerable in moderate crashes and the younger, higher risk drivers in more violent crashes.”
Advancing technology will make your journey’s safer. With seatbelts potentially being able to detect the severity of a crash and respond accordingly, it’s a wonder why this technology hasn’t been developed sooner!