In the old days, active safety was provided by the horse you rode. Any hazard missed by the rider would be spotted by the equine radar system and you’d both come to a halt.
It’s taken a while, but this automatic braking function is now available on a growing number of cars, and not just the posh ones either. Order a new Ford Focus with the optional Driver Assistance Pack and it’ll come with a bulky lump of plastic ahead of the rear view mirror that hides a laser. This continuously scans the road ahead and if it spies a stopped car you haven’t, it’ll send a swift warning to hit the brakes and you’ll come to a complete stop.
The Focus device is one of the simpler forms of what we’re being encouraged to call AEB, or autonomous emergency braking, and it’s the next big thing in car safety.
“We predict it’ll go across the board, like ESC,” says Colin Grover, project engineer at automotive research centre Thatcham. The Berkshire-based test-centre has already been heavily influential in raising the profile of ESC, aka electronic stability control, which is to become mandatory on all new cars sold in Europe.
Now Thatcham is applying the same rigorous programme of testing and rating to autonomous braking, and you wouldn’t bet against being made a legal requirement for all cars in the future too.
In studies carried out with Loughborough University into the potential benefits, Thatcham calculated that if every car was equipped, 64 deaths and 650 serious injuries could be prevented every year in the UK, with 2,700 fewer pedestrian casualties too. Because, as well as spotting cars, the systems are now being trained to identify people in the road.
“Humans are pretty unique in their shape. We’ve got a round head on top of a square-ish body – we’re pretty easy to identify,” says Grover.