The industry then got a sort of reprieve for a number of years in terms of crash-prevention efforts. Automakers turned their focus largely to vehicle safety and occupant protection, including the explosive growth - no pun intended - of air bag systems. The Internet boom also had the OEMs and electronics firms focused on passenger information and entertainment systems.
The bad news for the industry is that direction is about to change - and change rather dramatically. Federal auto safety regulators - seeking to reverse a rise in highway deaths - are shifting their focus from mandates that help occupants survive crashes to technology that will help drivers avoid accidents altogether.
Dr. Jeffrey Runge, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said in a speech before the Society of Automotive Engineers that bolstering vehicle "crashworthiness" represents the past, and that "crash avoidance" is the future.
"I'd like to begin to focus on the event before the crash," Runge said. "We may have plateaued out in terms of crashworthiness."
The effect of that change was perhaps no where more apparent than at the last "Convergence," a 30-year-old event in Detroit that brings together 10,000 automotive and electronics industry insiders. At the event in recent years, telematics technology was all the rage, with systems promising that without leaving their vehicle, drivers would soon be able to do just about everything electronic they could from home or office.
This past year, it was clear that for a number of reasons, automakers and their suppliers are less interested in letting motorists send and receive e-mail - and far more interested in new systems to keep vehicles from running into one another. That's not good news for those who make a living in the collision repair industry.
"The ultimate goal here seems to be to make cars that refuse to crash," one automotive technology developer quipped.
Collision avoidance systems are, of course, not new and have been showing up in a growing number of vehicles for some time. The parking assistance sensors in vehicle bumpers are among the most common - and most rudimentary - of these systems. But with NHTSA asking for $5 million from Congress to fund new research into crash-avoidance technologies, the pace of development and implementation of more sophisticated systems is expected to increase.
NHTSA can point to the success of electronic stability controls (ESC) systems to bolster its argument for accident-avoidance systems. In 2003, 7.4 percent of light vehicles sold had some form of ESC. Of the vehicles in a NHTSA study, ESC reduced single vehicle crashes in passenger cars by 35 percent and in SUVs by 67 percent compared to the same models sold in prior years without the technology.
What other collision avoidance technology can shops expect to soon see - or not see if the collision avoidance systems truly keep these cars out of repair shops?
Nissan was among the first to introduce a lane-departure warning system in the U.S. The system, on some 2005 Infiniti models, uses a camera on the front of the rear-view mirror that monitors lane markings ahead of the car. If the vehicle is moving above 45 miles per hour and approaches a lane marking without using a turn signal, the system starts beeping and flashing a special icon on the dash.
System adjusts torque
A similar system Volvo is rolling out actually adjusts the torque of the steering wheel to guide the driver back. (Automakers are concerned that U.S. drivers may not want systems that actually take some control of the vehicle, so many systems simply "encourage" the driver to take the proper action; one system, for example, won't actually slow the vehicle speed if the navigation system knows a sharp curve is fast approaching, but it may adjust the gas-pedal spring pressure.)
Siemens has introduced a "Blind Spot Detection System" that uses radar sensors on the side of vehicles to warns drivers when a vehicle is approaching and passing through blind spots. If a vehicle is in the next lane over, the system flashes a light on the side-view mirror. The technology is expected to be in production for the 2007 model year.
As early as 2008, similar monitors will likely be on the front and sides of vehicles to warn of obstructions, pedestrians, and stopped vehicles. Developers say such systems can distinguish between, say, a shopping bag flying across the road and a truck rushing toward the car. Some of these systems won't just issue a warning, but in the case of an imminent collision, could also deploy air bags, slide the driver's seat into its safest position and tighten the seatbelts.
General Motors is taking this idea a step further: An intelligent mapping system, located in the car's trunk, will attempt to predict where exactly the car will go next. It will then check to see whether any obstacles detected by its sensors are in the way or are nothing to worry about.
Delphi is developing a system that when it senses an imminent rollover would apply pressure to the wheel of the car and brake at one of its corners to prevent the rollover.
Adaptive cruise control
Matt Matsushita, the chief executive officer of Denso International America Inc., the principal American subsidiary of the Japanese automotive supplier, told the Convergence 2004 conference his company has developed an adaptive cruise control system that regulates driving in slow moving traffic.
Similar systems have been in place to alert drivers or slow vehicles using cruise control at highway speeds when the vehicle is approaching another vehicle. But Denso's system is designed for cruise control use at speeds between zero and 20 miles per hour where fender benders are not uncommon. The new system, which was developed in conjunction with an automaker, can be used in heavy traffic and eliminates the need for the driver to constantly shift from the brake to the accelerator, Matsushita said.
TRW is developing a system, which could be available as early as 2007, that watches vehicle occupants through a camera attached to rear-view mirror. By measuring the shape of the driver or passenger's head and body type, the system can figure out the person's size more precisely and adjust accident response - such as air bag firing rate - accordingly. The system includes accident avoidance by also monitoring the driver's head and eye movements and, if it determines that the driver is nodding off, it could turn on the radio.
Improved brake lights
Even the lowly brake light is acquiring added accident-avoidance power. LED and other vehicle lighting systems are enabling brake lights to adjust in intensity based on how strongly the driver is applying the brakes. That may also help drivers following the vehicle to apply more braking if they can tell the driver in front is braking sharply.
Also by 2008 or 2010, cars will even be able to receive information to help prevent accidents. A traffic signal, for example, might notify a car speeding toward a yellow light that it can't make it through the intersection before the light turns red. Car-to-car communication will alert drivers to road conditions ahead; as one car's stability control is activated at an unusually slow speed on a highway off-ramp, it will send out a "slippery road" warning to all cars in the vicinity, and if any of those cars move toward the same off-ramp, the driver will be alerted.
So what will be the overall impact of such technologies be on accident frequency, claims count and severity? It's difficult to get anyone to wager a guess, but proponents of the systems toss out some big numbers:
• Iteris, Inc., developer of the lane departure warning system being used by Nissan/Infiniti, says more than 1.5 million accidents a year are caused by distracted or drowsy drivers. (The company also cites Department of Transportation figures that say 55 percent of fatal accidents are caused by unintended lane departures.)
• GM, which earlier this year completed a 10-month field test with 10 Buick LeSabres outfitted with forward collision warning and adaptive cruise control systems, says that rear-end collisions, which the system is designed to reduce, account for about 29 percent of all police-reported crashes.
• In touting its blind spot detection system, Siemens cites NHTSA figures that nearly 830,000 vehicles are damaged each year as a result of blind-spot-related lane- changing accidents.
No technology can thwart the effects drunk or unwise drivers, so the collision industry as whole is hardly in danger because of such systems. And the increasing number of drivers, vehicles and vehicle-miles-driven also work in the industry's favor. But it seems inevitable that some of these crash avoidance technologies will prove effective at making at least minor or even significant reductions in accident frequency.
Not good news for an industry already struggling with over-capacity.
John Yoswick is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon, who has been writing about the automotive industry since 1988.