The most under-hyped, but most important, technology since seat belts

I’ve read dozens of retrospectives on the 2000s and 2009, in particular, in the past few days and quite a few predictions for what technology will be important to pay attention to in 2010 but none of those that I’ve seen have talked about this technology and this one could save your life.

Stats: “Car Crash Stats: There were nearly 6,420,000 auto accidents in the United States in 2005. The financial cost of these crashes is more than 230 Billion dollars. 2.9 million people were injured and 42,636 people killed. About 115 people die every day in vehicle crashes in the United States — one death every 13 minutes.”

Think about that. If we could cut down on car crashes by even 5% we could save more than 2,000 lives!

For the last 11,000 miles I’ve been using a technology that could do just that: radar is built into my car. I think it’s criminal that it’s not in every new car. Just like it was criminal for car makers to drag their feet pushing out seat belts, air bags, and anti-lock brakes in previous safety fights.

After 11,000 miles I’ve seen up close what this technology can do.

Twice it has sensed I was about to get into a crash and pre-fired the brakes, tightened up my seat belts, and warned me with both visual and audio alerts that I was about to get into a crash (both times someone had cut me off forcing me to apply emergency braking).

But it’s not just about accident avoidance, either. Recently I had a conversation with Ford’s Chief Safety Engineer, Steve Kozak. You should watch this interview to learn about this technology (it’s in two parts, Part I, Part II).

What does my 2010 Prius do with its radar? It has the best cruise control I’ve ever used and I’ve been in some very expensive and nice cars. Here’s how it works:

I pull onto a road, say freeway 280, and I set the cruise control. I set the top speed the car should ever go. Say 80 mph. But it doesn’t go 80 unless there’s no cars in front of me. Usually in Silicon Valley there’s traffic. So, the car in that case follows the car in front of me.

But they just slammed on their brakes to avoid something. What does my car do? It slams on its brakes too. It is so reliable I no longer impulsively reach for my brakes. Let’s say the car in front of me speeds up after slamming on its brakes. My car speeds up too. It’s like there is a rope between my car and theirs. It is like nothing you’ve ever experienced.

Why haven’t they just made my car totally drive itself? Because customers just aren’t ready for it, says Ford’s Kozak in the video. He explains how the 2010 Ford Taurus uses this technology in a much different way from my Prius due to customer research that showed Ford most people just aren’t ready for assisted driving technologies like exist in my Prius (my Prius also has a video camera that works with my steering system to keep me in lane and warns me if I am drifting out of my lane — great to warn you that you’re falling asleep at the wheel. Toyota has demos of these technologies on its 2010 Prius site).

Ford also uses radar to help when backing its car out of a parking spot. In part II of my video you can see him show how that works.

But the real deal here is the accident avoidance and preparation for getting in a wreck if you are headed that way. Kozak told me that very few people fully depress the brakes before a crash. If they had, he told me, lives would have been saved. Ford’s version of radar prepares the brakes so that all you need to do is touch them to get full braking pressure if the car thinks it’s headed for a collision.

Another place the radar is invaluable? In fog. I drive over the Santa Cruz mountains every day to get home and there often is fog. One day there was a car in front of me that had no back taillights. This would be a very dangerous situation in a normal car in deep fog (there are often crashes in the central valley that involve dozens of cars due to fog). My radar saw this car before I did and slowed down and kept its distance.

If you only watch one part of the videos I shot, watch the second part which gives a demo of how the tech works.

Why doesn’t this technology get hyped on Techcrunch or Mashable or other blogs?

A few reasons:

1. Most tech journalists haven’t bought a new car in the past year. So, they don’t get to see the latest 2010 technology.
2. The market doesn’t change over to new cars very quickly like we do with other gadgets or services. Look how long it took for Americans to get used to wearing seat belts (in many states it took legislation to get car owners to take them seriously).
3. Safety systems just aren’t as “sexy” as other toys on cars like Microsoft’s Sync system.
4. There aren’t big companies who are pushing the radar systems to bloggers. At CES next week, for instance, I’ve already gotten tons of PR invites to see Microsoft’s new Sync system that lets you control music and other systems in the car with your voice, but no company has invited me to see their radar system.
5. It’s hard to demo. I didn’t get how important this new technology is until I had driven several hundred miles in my car and had a near miss and gotten used to the assisted driving features.
6. It’s expensive. My system came with an electronics package that cost many thousands of dollars. Now, yes, I got LED headlights, navigation system, and a few other toys (better stereo) but I know only a small percentage of Toyota Prius buyers go for the expensive package.

So, this technology faces some major challenges. What are they?

1. Engineers still are figuring out what’s the right way to use this technology. You can see that in the video with Ford’s engineer.
2. This technology is still expensive, so will remain for cars that are $30,000 or more for at least the next year.
3. There isn’t much consumer demand for these systems yet (there will be as accident data comes in, because I’m convinced it will save lives and the data in a year will show that) but that’s partly because very little marketing is being done around these systems. How many Prius commercials have you seen that show off this system? I haven’t seen one, even though Toyota has shown off automatic parking.
4. Even when consumers pay for these systems I bet that most don’t even know to use the cruise control. My wife, for instance, hates cruise control so she never turns on the system that can help her drive better, even though it is more accurate than her own eye is and safer too.

Anyway, this is one technology that is way underhyped and not talked about nearly enough. If you have a chance to buy a new car in the next year you should consider buying a car with a radar system. It just might save your life.