While the spotlight has been shining on automatic systems to avoid car crashes, something interesting has been happening in the shadows: new technologies that let you survive a crash you don’t avoid. We may enter the era of “peak survivability,” when autonomy soon starts to reduce accidents.
Audi’s Pre Sense Side uses side radar sensors that are part of the car’s overall collision detection package to sense a T-bone impact right before it happens and lift the entire car 3 inches in half a second. That puts more of the impact force on the big, strong horizontal floor pan and sill beams rather than the soft doors. Mercedes Pre-Safe Impulse Side system inflates a side seat bolster right before a side crash to scoot you away from the door that’s about to get hit.
Those are good for most of your body, but what about your ears? A 2007 study found that 17 percent of people will suffer some permanent hearing loss due to the loud noise of airbag deployment.
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Mercedes Pre-Safe Sound protects against hearing loss by using the ear’s own behavior. When loud noises happen, the inner parts of your ears tense up and change position in a way that makes them less prone to injury. The Mercedes system emits a burst of loud but harmless noise right before a crash to tense those inner ear parts and make them less prone to injury from the louder airbag bang that’s about to come.
There’s been a lot of discussion about window and sunroof positions when it comes to protecting ears in a crash. The Association for Advancement of Automotive Medicine did a major study of this in 2003 and found, rather counterintuitively, that windows up and sunroof closed is best because it triggers the same natural mechanism. Mercedes takes advantage of that reaction with Pre-Safe Sound. The study noted that the effect will vary a lot based on the size of vehicle you are in: Pressure waves and the loudness from various frequencies be quite different in a minivan versus a sports car.
Volvo’s WHIPS system supports the back and head uniformly to avoid variance in their position relative to each other, which could help to prevent whiplash. And some of its newest cars offer a seat cushion and frame design that helps prevent spinal injuries if your car runs off the road, not unlike the way seats are designed for helicopters in case they need to auto rotate and come down the hard way.
If you’ve noticed anything common to these technologies, it’s that they’re in high-end cars that most of us won’t own. Trickle-down tech happens, but it would be nice if it didn’t need to.