By Laurance Yap

Utsunomiya, Japan – If you’ve ever been in a car crash, you know that they’re nothing like what you see on T.V., in movies, or in commercials. Watch a slow-mo film of a crash test, and it can seem almost ballet-like, the way the cars dance as they pile into each other, their crumpling skins artfully creasing in a demonstration of modern crumple zones and safety technology. But see one happen at full speed – even if full speed is only, say, 40 km/h – and the reality is unspeakably violent: one moment, the two cars are moving toward each other, looking perfectly all right; then there’s a mighty bang. There’s no time to watch metal crinkle or glass shatter; all you get is the aftermath, two crunched cars, debris scattered all over the place.

Deep in the bowels of Honda’s R&D and safety centre in Utsunomiya, company engineers have just performed an offset head-on crash test between a 2006 Civic and an Odyssey minivan. Both cars have bounced away from the impact point, their front ends shattered and wrinkled, their wheels bent and their occupants rendered invisible by side-curtain airbags. Look closer, though, and you notice that while there has been major destruction outside the passenger cabin, the vehicles’ doors and side glass remain pretty much unmolested, able to be opened despite the massive violence that they’ve just been subjected to. Inside, the crash dummies have struck airbags but are otherwise safe. Most impressive is that the occupants of the little Civic seem to have fared just as well as those riding in the much larger, much heavier, Odyssey.

Though it’s impressive how well the Civic fares in this crash – much of which has to do with how the car was engineered to be “compatible” with larger, higher vehicles – avoiding that crash is still preferable. And with driver distractions at their highest level ever, in the future, it may be up to the car to help avoid the crash, or at least warn the driver of an impending serious situation. So in addition to developing ever-safer cars, Honda’s also working on several advanced safety technologies that use cameras and radar to provide drivers with information on approaching vehicles and obstacles on the road.

In the last five years, Honda’s ASV (Advanced Safety Vehicle) projects, now in their third iteration, use cameras and image recognition technologies to detect obstacles and other vehicles. But the major advancement in the third-generation car we’re driving today, the Accord-based ASV-3, is the use of inter-vehicle communication technologies which allow cars to tell each other where they are on the road in relation to each other. The result is cars with intelligence – cars that know what’s around the corner and can help you make better driving decisions, and ones that make the roads safer.

Drive ASV-3 in any normal situation, and it acts like a pretty normal car. But as you approach an intersection, cameras read road markings and signs, letting you know you’re at a crossroads. The closer you get to the intersection without braking, the more warning you get; first, beeps and voices from the dashboard, and then, if you still don’t do anything, a major vibration from the brake pedal that slows the car down by 0.25 g (though ultimately, the decision to stop is still in the hands of the driver).

Once at the intersection, the car’s various sensors and its GPS tell you what’s around; any other cars or motorcycles with ASV’s inter-vehicle communications technology broadcast their positions and are shown on the navigation screen; the car uses its cameras to sense any others in the vicinity, giving you audible and visual indications that other traffic is detected.

Should you be heading towards an accident that needs to be swerved around (rather than one you can avoid just by stopping), ASV-3 helps make sure any avoidance manoeuvres you make are more precise than you may be able to accomplish on your own. Honda’s research shows that most drivers swerving around obstacles over-react, often sending their cars into spins or big slides; ASV-3 helps correct that problem by not only detecting oncoming obstacles earlier (and thus preparing for any evasive action) but also by using the car’s stability and traction control systems – plus manipulation of the electrically-assisted steering – to steer it back onto course more quickly and safely.

If you still manage to crash, ASV-3 has vital sign sensors and a cell phone that can automatically dial up the necessary authorities, informing them of what has happened, the severity of the crash, and the condition of the car’s occupants.

Obviously, the technology contained in ASV-3 is still far from being available in the kind of volumes, and at the kind of cost, where it will be available in mass volumes; the most optimistic engineers say that it’ll be at least three years before we see production versions of any of these systems. For stuff like inter-vehicle communication to really have an impact, it’ll need to be installed on every car on the road, and even technology like the visual-detection systems fitted to Honda’s test vehicles will need a lot of further development before they’re able to accurately and competently judge every intersection you approach, and what sort of alerts and actions it’ll need to take. Still, every technology that we take for granted today – anti-lock brakes, stability control, headlights that look around corners – all had their start in test vehicles like ASV-3, and it didn’t take long for them to become pretty common.

Meantime, Honda’s safety engineers keep plugging away. Their massive crash-test facility can fire vehicles at each other from five different approach angles, and has the capacity to perform nine tests a day; and of the 10,000 engineers working full-time at the R&D centre, 200 are permanently tasked to crash tests, while hundreds more work on every aspect of making a car safer for drivers, passengers, and pedestrians. These days, even the guys shaping a car’s fenders have to worry about their work’s impact on pedestrian injuries.

Which, I guess, means that Honda’s “safety for everyone” mantra applies not only to how it feels about its customers, but how it feels about its engineers as well.

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