Safety sells, automakers have discovered, and they are pouring money into technology.
Another seat belt revolution could be imminent. Ford and its safety-conscious Volvo division are experimenting with four-point seat belts and inflatable seat belts.
The four-point belts show up in two versions: the V4 belt that fastens in the middle over the occupant's lap, and the X4 belt that adds another shoulder belt to a traditional three-point belt to create a crisscross across the chest.
The key issue with implementing four-point belts is ensuring they don't reduce belt usage, said Stephen Rouhana, a group leader in Ford's safety r&d department.
Volvo's concept includes a fixed-eye sensor system that positions the driver for optimal visibility and then adjusts the floor, pedals, steering wheel and shift console to that placement.
A see-through A-pillar, recessed B-pillar, cameras with exterior views and radar-based lane-keeping and lane-changing aids enhance the driver's view and awareness of surrounding vehicles.
Lane-changing and lane-keeping guides are other visual aids likely to reach production soon, automotive safety consultant Scott Upham said.
Side-curtain airbags have been around in some luxury cars for a couple of years, but automakers are ramping up installation, especially in sport-utilities and higher-volume vehicles.
Ford, plagued with rollover concerns surrounding its top-selling Explorer, announced it would install side-curtain airbags and rollover sensors on all of its sport-utilities by 2005.
Lexus also will made side-curtain bags standard on its new IS 300 SportsCross and IS 300 sedan, on the market in August. The new Volkswagen Passat features curtain bags, and Jeep announced the 2002 Liberty, the replacement for the Cherokee, will have optional curtain bags for front and rear seat occupants.
Stability control, tire safety
Automakers say they will continue to ramp up electronic stability control in vehicles. Mercedes-Benz offers a version of the technology across its line of vehicles in the United States, and Ford says it will be available on all sport-utilities by 2005, beginning with the 2002 Explorer.
In response to last year's Firestone tire recall on its Explorer, Ford also plans to put tire pressure monitoring systems on its sport-utilities and pickups by 2005, again starting with the 2002 Explorer. The new Lexus SC 430 convertible also will come with a tire monitoring device.