The industry also is puzzling out how to improve the incoming data that trigger a safety system's response. For instance, Volvo is testing a 360-degree view lidar system, Ivarsson says.
Delphi's De Vos says sensor technology must be reliable in adverse weather -- such as snow, fog or wet pavement that obscure lane markers.
"We still need to make these systems much more capable over all weather conditions," he said. "Today, some systems tend to turn themselves off in inclement weather, and that's when you need the system the most.
"As we try to make these systems more standard, the expectation from the end consumer is that they will always work and they will work reliably."
De Vos says automakers and suppliers are in the early stages of figuring out how to best blend radar, lidar, cameras and information from mapping systems. But he says such multimodal sensing will improve the systems' performance.
Vehicle-to-vehicle communication and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication also will play a major role in updating data about road conditions, says John Capp, General Motors director of global safety strategy. And basic infrastructure improvements, such as clear lane markings, are needed.
But for now, IIHS senior researcher David Kidd says, gaps in sensing systems pose a potential danger if drivers come to rely on safety features.
"My experience is that these things work fairly well on highways that are clearly marked," Kidd said. "I think it would be very easy to fall into complacency."
Developers say that, aside from refining current sensor functions, the industry is adding capability to them: for instance, the ability to distinguish large animals, bicyclists and pedestrians.
That is part of a trend to add functions to existing safety systems, rather than invent new ones. For example, rear cross-traffic alerts were layered onto backup cameras. Continental may add another layer -- rear cross-traffic braking assist, says Dean McConnell, leader of sales, project management and business development for Continental Automotive Systems.
These kinds of improvements are needed to make fully autonomous vehicles safe. As systems evolve, Kidd of IIHS says, computerized intervention in unsafe situations will become more aggressive: "I think that what you're going to see is automakers moving away from warnings to some sort of active assistance."
There's little doubt that automakers see self-driving vehicles as the endpoint.
McConnell says Continental has noticed a new tone in inquiries from automakers in the past year: "It's shifted from discrete functions and sensor solutions to, "How do we get from ADAS to autonomous driving?'"
But, he says, full autonomy can come only after improvements to today's safety technology: "That requires a whole new level of functionality and safety redundancy in the system."