When Ralph Nader wrote "Unsafe at Any Speed," his groundbreaking book that helped launch the modern day auto safety movement back in the pre-seat belt era, auto makers were actually concealing from the public their own research showing that devices like seat belts, air bags and padded dashboards could save lives.
Nowadays, with seat belts and airbags firmly entrenched in the modern automobile, we're at the threshold of a whole new era of auto safety, utilizing "machine vision" video cameras to detect unintended lane changes, drivers falling asleep, imminent crashes, and other dangerous situations.
What a healthy and refreshing difference that now, over forty years after Nader's 1965 book (whose name comes from a chapter about the Corvair) , the auto industry is being nudged into offering ever more and better safety features by the combination of consumer demand and innovation from video processing companies, image sensor makers and others with a commercial interest in seeing safety deployed.
There are now so many video safety systems in the works or being deployed that one company, NEC, has even created a high-level software language to help a car sift through and prioritize all the safety information coming at it (see Parallel processing architecture brings advanced vision applications to today's cars).
They say the tobacco industry will never market a "safe" cigarette because it would be an admission that all the other cigarettes they make are not safe. That was essentially where the auto industry was back in the early 1960s, when they argued that driver error was always to blame for car accidents, and that they could do nothing to advance safety other than driver education. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, automobile companies only began installing safety features after being forced to by government agencies.
Competition now drives much of automobile safety innovation, but had it not been for the consumer protection movement back in the early days, one can only wonder whether we'd be where we are today.