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The past, present and future of road safety

Can smart infrastructure make public roads shared spaces again?

Road safety has come a long way in the last century. Gone are the days of unstructured chaos with no highway code. Today road users are separated by traffic lights, crossings, cycle lanes and pavements. Technology has also helped infrastructure and vehicles become safer and we now play a leading role in developing innovative safety solutions, from driver assist systems to smart tyres.

But what does the future hold? As autonomous driving edges closer to reality, we could soon see a further revolution in how man and machine share our streets.  

Pedestrians, cars and carts share the road in London's Cannon Street

Pedestrians, cars and carts share the road in London

From frantic chaos to safer roads

‘Ding ding!’ As cars rattle past in both directions, a horse and cart trundles across the street. Pedestrians are scattered everywhere, darting between trams, animals, cyclists and even the odd automobile as they hurry about their business. Welcome to the chaos of an early 20th century city street.

At the beginning of the 1900s, mobility was changing dramatically. Horses were on the way out, with trams, buses and cars on the way in. Traffic was becoming heavier and faster; accidents more common and more serious.

The automotive industry was quick to recognise this. As car ownership grew, the sector helped to create new laws, infrastructure and features to make streets safer for all road users. Traffic signs and lights soon became a common sight within cities, as did traffic police, helping to maintain safety and enforce the law. Mechanical indicators were added to cars to communicate a driver’s intentions more clearly. In 1909, Germany introduced some of the world’s first national traffic laws, together with a state driving test and license. 

Pedestrians separated from traffic in Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Pedestrians separated from traffic in Philadelphia

Rules of the road improve global road safety

As roads became more dangerous, further changes were introduced: the first pedestrian crossings appeared in the United Kingdom in the 1930s; Germany brought in its first nationwide speed limit in 1934 – 60 km/h (37mph) in urban areas. This was abolished in the 1950s in West Germany but reintroduced five years later after a rise in road traffic injuries.

One of the most important developments in road safety, the seatbelt, was surprisingly slow to catch on. Vehicle manufacturers began to offer them as optional extras in the 1950s, but uptake was extremely low. The first compulsory seat belt law wasn’t introduced until 1970, in Australia. However, in many countries they didn’t become mandatory for all passengers until the 1980s.

A typical city streetscape with segregated traffic at a crossing

Traffic crossing in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Digital technologies and the road to automation

Although they might sometimes seem chaotic, today's city streets are very different to the haphazard scenes of a century ago. Traffic flows are carefully monitored and controlled, pedestrians stick to the pavement, pedestrian crossings and separate cycle lanes are commonplace.

But safety is still a huge issue. Population growth and rising vehicle ownership mean there are more people on the road than ever before. Approximately 1.3 million people die each year in road traffic accidents (source: WHO). More than half of these are more vulnerable road users like pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists.

Fortunately, technological innovation and digital transformation is helping us to make smart city infrastructure safer and we play a leading role in creating a range of intelligent solutions. Our Development Centre for Passive and Integrated Safety covers everything from crash tests to cutting-edge advanced driver assistance technology. 

Our contribution to safer roads: new technologies and intelligent innovation

New radar sensors offer 360 degree coverage of surrounding traffic

New radar sensors offer 360 degree coverage of surrounding traffic

Turn Assist systems for bicycle safety

Turn Assist systems for bicycle safety

Turn Assist systems, use short-range radar to detect pedestrians, cyclists or motorcycle riders in difficult-to-see blind spots when making a turn. According to our research in Germany, these could help prevent 5% of accidents in which cyclists are killed or seriously injured.

The backbone of numerous in-car digital technologies, Electronic Stability Control monitors data from each wheel such as speed, angle and acceleration, constantly comparing the driver’s input with the vehicle’s actual behaviour. It can intervene immediately as soon as it detects an issue such as under or oversteer by adjusting the brakes or engine torque. 

Of course, we also have tyres covered. Our smart sensors monitor key data like pressure, tread and temperature to ensure optimal tyre health and drastically improve safety. 

Technology like this will become increasingly important as human involvement in driving decreases and fully autonomous cars become commonplace. Believe it or not, we already have extensive experience in self-driving vehicles stretching back more than 50 years. In 1968, we developed the first electronically controlled driverless car for tyre testing. Its present-day descendent, our fully autonomous Continental Urban Mobility Experience (CUbE) shuttle, has been through numerous successful testing phases. And for the next stage in automation, we’re developing a self-driving urban delivery system.

There are still challenges to overcome before we see widespread adoption of smart vehicles on public roads: technological and regulatory hurdles, as well as public acceptance of a new form of mobility. But as experts like those in our Autonomous Mobility and Safety unit continue to perfect sensor technology and human-machine interaction, this will only be a matter of time.    

Intersection in New York

With smart infrastructure, intersections like this could soon be a thing of the past

Back to the future with smart infrastructure

Automation and smart infrastructure have the potential to reduce risk and make our streets much safer. After all, more than 90% of road traffic accidents are caused by human error (source: European Commission). Imagine a streetscape in which road traffic accidents are almost impossible. Cutting-edge connectivity like 5G will enable cars and infrastructure to communicate with each other in just milliseconds – no need to second-guess the driver in front or behind. Highly accurate cameras and radar will keep more than one eye on pedestrians, cyclists and anything else that may appear.

As self-driving cars will be able to safely operate in very close proximity to each other, some roads could be made smaller. This would free up extra space for pedestrians, cyclists and other road users. We may even see an end to today’s segregated streets – an intriguing step back to the future where road users share space fluidly and most importantly, safely.

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