With road-death figures still high, and greenhouse gas emissions causing concern, David Wilkins looks at moves to make cars safer and cleaner

Does the car have a future? There are many who would wish it dead, and it certainly attracts at least its fair share of the blame for climate change and other environmental problems. Not only that – for all the big safety advances of recent years, 2,538 people died on Britain's roads in 2008, the most recent year for which full data is available. Of those, about half were occupants of cars or other road vehicles; 572 were pedestrians, 115 were cyclists and 493 were motorcyclists, many of whom will have come off worse in a collision with a car. By any standard that is unacceptable, even if Britain's roads are safer than those of most other countries and that record is improving.

On the other hand, while the car has its drawbacks, it cannot easily be replaced. High-speed rail or cheap flights may be an alternative for long trips, but public transport can't begin to replicate the convenience of the car for ad hoc journeys – the last-minute dash to the shops, for example – and even the best rural bus timetable is going to cramp the average teenager's social life.

It seems, therefore, that the car, or something like it, will always be with us, but it will have to become a lot safer and cleaner, more respectful of other road users and our planet, if it is to thrive, as opposed to merely survive.

It's easy to assume that such change will make cars worse, at least as far as the driving experience is concerned, but there's plenty of evidence that this need not be the case. The introduction of CO2 emissions-based car taxes in the UK, for example, has been one of the factors in the launch of special eco models, such as BMW's EfficientDynamics cars and Volkswagen's BlueMotion range; these haven't done much to uphold the rules of punctuation, but they are cleaner than their predecessors and have proven popular with the buyers, who haven't really experienced much, if any, loss of performance.

The first electric cars from the leading manufacturers, such as Mitsubishi's i MiEV (Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle) and the Nissan Leaf, far from performing like milk floats or golf buggies, are delighting enthusiasts with their snappy acceleration.

Across the industry, companies are working on dozens of initiatives to make future cars safer and cleaner. Here, we focus on two; the work being done by Volvo and others on accident prevention and the protection of other road users, and the Finnish oil company Neste Oil's development of renewable fuels, in particular a renewable diesel fuel that is in many respects superior to today's fossil-based diesels and plant-based bio-diesels.

Volvo used to be synonymous with safety; its tank-like cars were leaders in passive safety, which meant that they would protect you well in the case of a collision. But Volvo's safety message has changed. That's partly because the company is trying to broaden its appeal – look at the curvy new S60 saloon's styling for evidence of that – but also because the focus of manufacturers' work on safety is changing. Now there is more focus on active safety, on giving cars the systems that will help to avoid impacts in the first place, and protect other road users, especially pedestrians.

This shifting emphasis is reflected in official safety testing. Early tests measured how well cars stood up to a collision with a solid object, but ratings such as those provided by Euro NCAP (European New Car Assessment Programme) now take a much broader view of safety, incorporating whether cars are fitted with systems such as speed limiters and electronic stability control, which help to keep a car out of trouble in the first place. In particular, Euro NCAP safety scores now also reflect how well cars are designed to minimise injuries to pedestrians.

But the leaders in safety provide active safety systems that go beyond the requirements of the tests. One of these is adaptive cruise control, which, instead of merely maintaining a constant speed, gently slows a car if it is in any danger of closing too quickly on a slower vehicle; when the road is clear, the car is permitted to accelerate gently to the set speed. Such radar-based systems are fitted by several premium manufacturers, including Lexus, Mercedes and Volvo, and the latest versions will even bring the car to a halt in order to avoid an accident.

Other systems minimise the risk of a collision in high-speed lane changes. In 2005, Citroën offered a lane departure warning system that detects white lines on the road and alerts the driver if the car begins to leave its lane without the indicator being operated. At about the same time, Volvo started offering a complementary technology, Blis (Blind Spot Information System), which uses sensors to detect cars lurking in the blind spots that even the best designed door mirrors can miss; other manufacturers such as Jaguar now offer similar systems.

Perhaps the most intelligent of such technology is Volvo's Collision Warning-with-Auto Brake technology, which automatically applies the brakes if the car seems likely to collide with another object, usually the car in front. Volvo says half of all drivers colliding with another vehicle from behind do not brake, a claim that seems consistent with research citing "failed to look properly" as a contributory factor in 37 per cent of accidents reported to the police in the UK in 2008. The latest version of the technology available in the S60 model – Pedestrian Protection with Full Auto Brake – has a radar system capable of distinguishing between pedestrians and other fixed or moving objects, and will use the car's full braking power to bring it to a halt if the driver doesn't respond to a warning.

Advanced as these systems are, however, they probably represent only the first stage in the development of future intelligent transportation systems (ITS), in which vehicles will not only detect each others' presence and communicate with each other but also receive and intelligently process data from satellite navigation systems and traffic reports. It doesn't require much imagination to see that ITS could unlock a future in which collisions are rare and in which cars are also intelligently routed in order to avoid congestion and minimise fuel consumption.

If Volvo's latest S60 is a safety leader, an older Volvo, a slightly worn XC70 that spends most of its time parked at a corporate headquarters in Helsinki, is an unlikely trailblazer for one of the most promising alternative fuels on sale today. That fuel is NExBTL, a renewable diesel developed by Neste Oil, and the XC70 is used to demonstrate its qualities to visitors. The most important characteristic of NExBTL is that, while it is a diesel fuel derived from renewable sources, it has nothing to do with today's bio-diesels, which several car manufacturers advise should not be used in their modern engines.

Conventional bio-diesel is the result of a simple blending process that can be carried out in your garden shed, but NExBTL is produced by putting vegetable-based oil through a refinery process, that is, if anything, more complex than that used to produce fossil-based diesel. The resulting fuel is chemically much more similar to fossil-based diesel than to bio-diesel, and is in many respects superior to fossil diesel. For example, it has a cetane rating (analogous to the octane rating for gasoline) of between 80 and 100, compared with the average for fossil-based diesel of 53.

NExBTL can either be blended with fossil-based diesel to produce standard and premium diesels – or used in 100 per cent renewable form. Since 2008, a blend containing NExBTL has been on general sale at Neste Oil's filling stations as a mainstream diesel, and NExBTL is also available in 100 per cent renewable form at a limited number of pumps for those who are taking part in Neste Oil's trials of the new fuel. Leading truck and car manufacturers are also carrying out their own tests, which have apparently not shown up any problems so far.

So how does the XC70 run on NExBTL? Without a back-to-back test, it's difficult to be certain, but it doesn't really feel different to any other Volvo with a five-cylinder diesel engine, although it is thought NExBTL makes an engine work a little more smoothly and quietly. The real benefits come in terms of lower nitrogen oxide and greenhouse gas emissions. In Germany, for example, some older, dirtier diesel cars are banned from certain city centres, but if they were to run on NExBTL their emissions would be clean enough to qualify for entry. Another big advantage is that NExBTL can be distributed through today's filling stations and used in today's cars without modification. Any big switch to, say, hydrogen or electric power would require a new vehicle fleet and a new refuelling infrastructure.

The car does have a future – and it's going to be a cleaner, safer future, too.

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