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See Inside December 2008

Crashless Cars: Making Driving Safer

Next-generation automotive safety technology could give us vehicles that are difficult to crash—and eventually may not need drivers at all



Kenn Brown Mondolithic Studios

The empty highway stretches straight out to the horizon, so I take a moment to peek at the electronic display down in the car’s center console. I read out the numbers on the screen swiftly and glance back to the windshield, when I see ... nothing. A dense fog has swallowed the roadway, and I am driving blind. Before I can feel for the foot brake, an unmistakable warning—a brake-light red rectangle—flashes onto the windshield. Without another thought, I slam hard on the pedal, cursing loudly. My vehicle comes to a hasty halt as a disabled car emerges abruptly from the murk dead ahead.

Before I can even exhale, bright lights burn all around, and laughter rings out incongruously through the passenger cabin. I remember suddenly that I’m sitting inside the VIRTTEX (VIRtual Test Track EXperiment) driving simulator lab at Ford’s Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Mich. The big, egg-shaped simulator dome enables specialists there to conduct driving tests under totally safe but highly convincing virtual-reality conditions. The disembodied mirth on the intercom is the control-room technicians having a chuckle over my brief discomfiture.

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