Automaker BMW will announce this weekend a new direction in car safety protection with a system that calculates for emergency responders the likelihood of severe injuries in a crash.
Sensors in all 2009 BMWs except the M3 now can assess car damage and other factors, data that experts say can be crucial to letting arriving firefighters and paramedics know what to expect and where they should be prepared to take the injured.
"This could save thousands of lives," says Jeffrey Augenstein, a physician who is director of the William Lehman Injury Research Center that worked with BMW.
Part of the next wave of safety technology from automakers, this system is aimed at a relatively recent problem: Because of today's air bags and other passive safety systems, victims may not have the obvious external signs of major injuries.
If the car can tell rescuers how bad the crash was, they can better assess whether someone might have major, but less obvious, internal injuries.
Systems such as General Motors' OnStar already can sense a crash and its site, and report it to authorities. BMW's system uses sensors and an algorithm to determine crash severity on a 1-to-100 scale. Factors include deceleration level, seat belt use, impact direction and whether the crash involved multiple objects. A rating above 20 signals the call center that potential injuries should be considered major. An unbelted driver who hits one object at 27 mph has a 20% chance of injury. Hitting more than one object raises odds to 56%, the Lehman center estimates.
The new system also is important because the BMW Assist response center cannot reach the driver over the two-way talk system in up to 14% of accidents, says Peter Baur, BMW's product analysis manager.
Since 2006, OnStar has been able to give its operators data on accident force and angle and whether the vehicle rolled over, among other things, OnStar President Chet Huber says. While he thinks BMW's system is different, but not necessarily better than OnStar, he welcomes all efforts to create safer cars.
It's a step "toward every vehicle being able to help" in a serious accident, Huber says.
The system is in keeping with a study group by the Centers for Disease Control's Injury Center to see how rescuers can take advantage of the advanced telemetry being built into cars.
The goal is to "make sure the (victim) gets to the right place in the right amount of time," says Dr. Richard Hunt, director of the Division of Injury Response.