Safety sells, automakers have discovered, and they are pouring money into technology.
For years, car manufacturers have focused on passive safety - technologies such as airbags. Improvements in this arena are still under way, particularly with the old-fashioned seat belt. But safety researchers are concentrating on active safety features to help drivers avoid accidents in the first place.
Ford Motor Co. and Volvo both made safety splashes at the Detroit show, while other car brands continued to make strides. Here are some key technologies.
Few changes have been made to the traditional three-point seat belt in the past decade. Pretensioners and load-limiting retractors - devices that better protect occupants during accidents - have made their way into some systems.
But another seat belt revolution could be imminent. Ford Motor Co. and its safety-conscious Volvo division are experimenting with four-point seat belts and inflatable seat belts.
The four-point belts show up in Ford's TechLab display and Volvo's Safety Concept Car 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 the chest. Ford is working with supplier TRW Inc. on the belts. Johnson Controls Inc. also is showing a four-point belt on its Lego interior concept that debuted at the Detroit show.
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. Ford will offer demonstrations during the show and survey visitors about their acceptance of a four-point system.
Ford also will seek feedback on inflatable belts. That technology, being developed with aerospace supplier BFGoodrich, involves installing a tubular airbag in the shoulder strap that inflates to better hold and cushion the wearer during a crash.
The technology, which would cost about $50 a belt, may be ideal for rear seats because airbags are seldom installed where children sit. A BFGoodrich official said the inflatable belt likely will be in production for a 2004 model minivan or sport-utility.
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. Volvo is working with suppliers Johnson Controls Inc., Sarnoff and BMG on the system.
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.
'If we can improve this information, it would lead to more safety and reduced accidents,' said Hans Gustavsson, head of purchasing and product development at Volvo.
The new pillars won't sacrifice strength for visibility, Volvo engineers said, though more research is needed to perfect the design and implement changes in vehicle platforms.
Other companies are working on improving the driver's visibility. Acura's RS-X sports coupe prototype integrates slim A- and B-pillars, a low-profile cowl and large windows for improved outward visibility. Infiniti's new Q45 will feature a rear-view backup monitor.
Lane-changing and lane-keeping guides are other visual aids likely to reach production soon, automotive safety consultant Scott Upham said. Suppliers and automakers are in advanced development on the devices, and Nissan said Monday, Jan. 8, it would introduce a lane-keeping system on a vehicle in Japan. The devices use radar to detect vehicles in a driver's blind spot and to notify the driver if the vehicle leaves the lane.
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. The curtain bags drop from the headliner and offer added protection, especially in rollovers.
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. The curtain bags will be available on the 2002 Explorer when it goes on sale in March; rollover sensors will follow later this year.
Lexus also will make side-curtain bags standard on its IS 300 SportsCross and IS 300 sedan, on the market in August. The new Volkswagen Passat features curtain bags, and Jeep announced that the 2002 Liberty, the replacement for the Cherokee, will have optional curtain bags for front and rear seat occupants. Installation rates are expected to be around 20 percent initially, a Jeep spokeswoman said.
Stability control and 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 pressure monitoring device and optional run-flat tires.