An illustration depicting the future of car safety
Illustration: Sinelab

In the not-too-distant past, advances in car safety focused on keeping drivers and passengers protected in a crash. Today’s vehicles go a step beyond, using cameras, radar, and computing power to prevent crashes and other tragedies from happening in the first place. As a result, modern safety systems protect not only those inside vehicles but also other drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists.

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Features such as automatic emergency braking (AEB) and blind spot warning (BSW) are already preventing crashes, but we’re still only starting to realize the benefits of how technology can make roads safer, says Jake Fisher, senior director of CR’s Auto Test Center. Soon, more powerful processors and sensors will usher in the next generation of safety advances, which will go even further to save lives and prevent injuries.

“Cars are benefiting from the explosion in computer processing power, and automakers are using that technology to make cars smarter and safer,” Fisher says. It’s also likely that new safety features will become more commonplace on vehicles as new federal policies encourage automakers to install them on the vehicles they sell.

CR has tried early versions of many of these emerging features, and we’re confident that they will prevent crashes. “These technologies can help us eventually get to a point where road fatalities are a thing of the past,” Fisher says.

See With Computer Vision

What it is: Augmented reality is designed to blend human and computer vision, projecting 3D holographic animations into the driver’s field of view to show exactly where a navigation system says to turn, highlight a pedestrian waiting to cross, or warn of a stopped car ahead, among other things.

When it’s coming: Some vehicles sold in Europe already have versions of augmented reality displays. We expect similar features in the U.S. soon.

How it works: The technology is currently in development at multiple automakers and suppliers, such as Continental, GM, and Panasonic. It will use a head-up display that can track a driver’s eye movements to ensure that vital information is projected in their line of sight no matter where they look or how far they sit from the steering wheel. In its research of its own prototype system paired with automated driving, Continental says it found that drivers are quicker to react to augmented reality warnings than to the usual chimes and dashboard lights alone.

CR’s take: We like it. “These systems put vital information in the driver’s sight and don’t direct their eyes away from the road like standard gauges and other visual warnings,” says Kelly Funkhouser, CR’s program manager for vehicle interface testing.

Stop the ‘Dooring’ Danger

Safe exit assist aims to stop the dooring danger
Illustration: Sinelab

What it is: “Dooring” is when a parked motorist opens a door directly into the path of a bicyclist, and it’s most common when cars parallel park alongside where cyclists ride. A doored cyclist may be injured after colliding with the door itself. Or they could veer into traffic and potentially be struck by a vehicle, sometimes after falling. To prevent dooring—which in some cities is responsible for close to 20 percent of cycling crashes—some current Audi and Mercedes-Benz vehicles and the upcoming 2022 Lexus NX use built-in sensors to detect oncoming bicycle or vehicle traffic from behind. If it isn’t safe to open the door, the vehicle will sound and/or flash a warning, or keep the door from unlatching. Some Hyundai, Kia, and Genesis vehicles actively prevent rear-seat occupants from exiting the vehicle until it’s safe by locking the rear doors. That means added peace of mind for parents with kids out of reach in the back seat.

Who has it: Safe Exit Assist is already available on some HyundaiKia, and Genesis vehicles.

How it works: Hyundai (the parent company of Genesis) and Kia’s Safe Exit Assist system uses electronic child safety locks and the same bumper-mounted radar that powers other active safety systems. If Safe Exit Assist detects oncoming traffic, it locks the rear doors to prevent an incident. The driver can override this system momentarily with a press of a button, or even deactivate it entirely. Some systems from other automakers display a visual warning for the front and rear doors instead. Lexus says its upcoming NX SUV will also be able to detect ­traffic—including cyclists—approaching from the rear. If there’s a risk of a crash, it will emit visual and audio warnings and disable the front and rear doors’ electronic latches.

CR’s take: We’re fans of any safety system that can protect people both inside and outside a vehicle. Some current AEB setups can stop cars when they detect cyclists, a step in the right direction for sharing the road. Features such as Safe Exit Assist go even further. “It’s an obvious safety benefit to use a vehicle’s existing sensors to create an additional layer of protection for kids in the back seat and cyclists on the road,” says Fisher at CR’s Auto Test Center.

Protect ‘Invisible’ Pedestrians

What it is: Unlike vision-based cameras that have problems seeing in poor lighting conditions, thermal cameras are very good at detecting pedestrians in the dark—even when they’re not visible to the naked eye. They could be key to reducing pedestrian fatalities on U.S. roads, which are up by 46 percent over the past decade. In 2020, 6,721 pedestrians were killed in the U.S., according to preliminary data from the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state and territorial highway safety offices in the U.S. Typical AEB with pedestrian detection has struggled to “see” in low light. That’s a problem because 80 percent of pedestrian fatalities take place after dark, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says.

When it’s coming: Thermal cameras may be available on new vehicles as soon as 2025.

How it works: An infrared heat sensor can detect people in the dark or in low-light situations, even when pedestrians are wearing dark clothing. “Thermal cameras see people as heat,” says Chris Posch, director of engineering for automotive at Teledyne Flir, a company that makes thermal-imaging cameras. The company’s internal testing shows that prototype thermal AEB systems can detect pedestrians 100 percent of the time in the darkness, as opposed to existing systems, which fail to see moving pedestrians in low light more often than not. Posch predicts that automakers will combine data from multiple sensors and cameras to take advantage of their strengths and optimize what a vehicle can “see,” a process known as sensor fusion.

CR’s take: “Pedestrian detection is advancing really quickly, and in the near future we’re going to see these systems become more and more effective at preventing the kind of crash scenarios that happen most frequently,” says William Wallace, CR’s manager of safety policy. CR is calling for NHTSA to incorporate tests of AEB with pedestrian detection into its star ratings and to mandate minimum requirements for the systems’ effectiveness in various conditions.

Prevent Hot Car Tragedies

Illustration: Sinelab

What it is: On average, 38 children younger than 15 die of heatstroke in parked cars each year, according to the National Safety Council. To prevent these fatalities, multiple vehicle manufacturers have already put rear-seat reminder systems in place. These systems remind drivers to check the back seat after a trip. Others have ultrasonic sensors inside the car that look for motion and sound an alarm if the sensors detect someone left behind in a locked car. Genesis is the first manufacturer to use radar for motion detection, which makes its system sensitive enough to detect the smallest movements of a child’s chest as they breathe, says a spokesperson at Hyundai, the parent company of Genesis. It can sense children sleeping in the back seat or pets left in the cargo area. Other manufacturers have expressed interest in using similar technology.

Who has it: The Genesis GV70 has radar-based motion detection. Other Hyundai, Genesis, and Kia vehicles use ultrasonic systems.

How it works: If the system senses that a passenger or pet has been left behind or gained access to the vehicle, it will set off a series of visual and audio warnings. Drivers can also sign up to be alerted on their cell phone. The automaker says that Genesis’ radar-based detector is more precise than ultrasonic sensors that are already in place in some vehicles, and can scan the entire car—including the cargo area—for movement. In addition, radar systems are not as susceptible to false activation as some ultrasonic sensors, which can be tricked by external vibration or noise.

CR’s take: “Automakers should use every technology available to prevent kids dying in hot cars, and this provides yet another avenue for them,” says Emily Thomas, PhD, automotive safety engineer at CR’s Auto Test Center. “Many parents assume they would never leave a child behind in a vehicle,” she says. “But research shows that anyone can forget a young child in a car.” That’s especially true if there has been a change in the driver’s routine, if the driver is sleep-deprived, or if they’re under additional stress. CR supports legislation that would make similar systems standard on all vehicles.

Light the Way, Not the Windshield

Illustration: Sinelab

What it is: If you’ve ever had trouble seeing clearly on a dark, winding road or been temporarily blinded by bright headlights from oncoming traffic, you’ll appreciate adaptive driving beam (ADB) headlights. Also called smart headlights, they shine as brightly as traditional high beams and improve a driver’s long-range visibility. They also use technology to keep extra glare from shining into the eyes of other drivers. Some systems can beam a spotlight to draw extra attention to pedestrians or cyclists, or project virtual lane lines on a snow-covered road. A 2019 AAA study showed that ADB lights provided up to 86 percent better illumination in the presence of an oncoming vehicle without any more glare for oncoming or followed drivers than traditional low beams. Smart headlights are available in other countries, but NHTSA has yet to approve a proposal from 2018 that would allow them in the U.S.

When it’s coming: Soon, we hope—but adaptive driving beam technology is not yet approved for use in the U.S.

How it works: Some ADB headlights use shutters within the headlight assembly to shade oncoming cars, like an umbrella blocking the sun. Others contain multiple LEDs, some of which turn off if a car is approaching or you’re following another vehicle, so the light doesn’t shine directly at other drivers’ windshields or rearview mirrors. Systems with spotlight illumination, such as Lexus’ BladeScan, use cameras to detect pedestrians, cyclists, or animals, and direct a beam of light directly at them. A few cars sold in the U.S.—including some Audis—already have ADB hardware installed, but it isn’t active. The automaker tells CR that dealerships will activate the feature once regulatory approval is received.

CR’s take: “You’re getting the benefits of high-beam lights without the glare for everyone else,” says Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at CR’s Auto Test Center and head of its headlight test program. She has used ADBs and says they are especially helpful at higher speeds, when low-beams can’t light the road far enough ahead for you to react in time.

Keep an Eye on the Driver

What it is: Automakers are increasingly adding advanced driver monitoring systems to make sure drivers pay attention to the road. Some can also detect whether a driver is unresponsive—because of either a medical emergency or another problem—and safely slow the vehicle and call for help.

Who has it: GM vehicles with Super Cruise can slow down and call for help if a driver is unresponsive.

How it works: Some vehicles that automate steering, braking, and acceleration use infrared cameras to ensure that a driver’s eyes are open and looking at the road; additional sensors monitor whether the driver is having trouble steering or staying in a lane. If the car’s built-in software detects these or other signs that the driver has become impaired, it will use its existing braking and steering automation to stop safely and may call emergency services using a built-in or paired cellular connection. Already, GM vehicles equipped with Super Cruise can slow to a stop in a travel lane, put on hazard lights, and call for help if the driver stops responding. The upcoming 2022 Lexus LS500h’s optional Emergency Driving Stop System will be able to pull the car to a stop on the shoulder in some cases.

CR’s take: Monitoring should at least be active when both speed and steering assistance are in use, because the driver is at risk of becoming complacent, says Kelly Funkhouser, CR’s program manager for vehicle interface testing. But that technology can also be used to detect behavior indicative of a health problem or intoxication. Based on data collected from NHTSA’s National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey from July 2005 to December 2007, an estimated 20,000 drivers annually crashed as a result of a medical emergency, such as a heart attack, seizure, or blackout behind the wheel. Drivers older than 65 are more likely than younger drivers to have medical emergencies while driving. In an August 2020 CR survey of 2,236 American adults, 81 percent of Americans said it was at least somewhat important to them that their next vehicle come with a system that can stop the car and call for help if they are unable to drive. “These systems could combine new and existing technology to help drivers when they need it most,” Funkhouser says.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the August 2021 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.