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Building a Safer Driver

Technologies that watch for veering, tailgating, and dozing are nearing showrooms.
October 1, 2003

Air bags notwithstanding, auto safety is stuck in neutral. Compared to their huge drop between the mid-1960s and early 1990s, fatality rates have hardly changed in the last decade (see “Safety Slowdown,” below), and the raw numbers remain appalling: 42,815 people died on U.S. roads last year, 619 more than in 2001. To improve that safety record, some manufacturers plan to install more-sophisticated driver-warning systems, including radar- and video-based safety devices that sense when you veer over lane markings or too close to other cars-and warn you before it’s too late.

Safety Slowdown: The rate of fatal U.S. crashes hasn’t much improved in a decade. Above, deaths per 160 million vehicle kilometers traveled.

Unlike previous safety improvements-such as air bags or antilock brakes-which increase the car’s ability to protect drivers and passengers from accidents, these new technologies are intended to help avoid accidents in the first place, by giving drivers better information. “We’re moving into a new era,” says Vicki Neale, a human-factors engineer at Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute. Instead of mechanical systems or devices to protect the car, she says, “the next stages of improvement are going to involve the driver.”

To be sure, manufacturers have long considered such devices. Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a leading watchdog group in Washington, DC, says such technologies have been prototyped since at least the 1970s but were never implemented-partly because of cost, and partly because there has never been a federal requirement similar to the ones that forced the installation of seat belts and air bags. “Clearly, some of them could have been implemented and should have been implemented,” he says. “The industry is not likely to implement them on their own.”

But that industry posture may be changing. The costs of underlying technologies, from tiny video cameras to microchips, have plummeted. In addition to adding safety, such features could add marketing allure without adding enormous expense for automakers. In the next few years it is likely that these new safety systems, such as lane guidance devices and blind-spot warnings, will actually trickle into showrooms even without new federal requirements.

Automakers including Honda, DaimlerChrysler, Ford, General Motors, and Nissan are all developing lane guidance systems intended to help drivers steer reliably and safely. Using video cameras mounted above rear-view mirrors and linked to image-processing software, such systems calculate an auto’s relationship to its lane boundaries by tracking painted lane markings on the roadway. As drivers drift, they can be warned by means of dashboard lights, sounds, or seat vibrations. The systems are already nearing deployment; Ford, for example, plans to road-test video sensors on more than 100 vehicles in the next year.

Beyond lane tracking, some systems are designed to increase driver awareness of surrounding vehicles. Volvo says it hopes to introduce a blind-spot warning system within several years. The system starts with backward-facing video cameras mounted on side mirrors. When a driver hits the turn signal with another vehicle in close range, an alarm sounds. “If you can educate drivers about the need to be attentive, and do it by these devices, you can improve driver behavior,” says James Sayer, a research engineer at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute.

Other technologies will simply keep drivers’ attention focused on the road. GM has introduced a device on the Saab 9.3 that collects data from sources such as the speedometer and even windshield wipers to determine when dashboard messages are appropriate, so that, for example, drivers braking on sharp curves in the rain won’t be distracted by nonessential information such as a low-fuel warning light. Beyond suppressing dashboard lights, DaimlerChrysler, Ford, and GM are researching systems that could prevent embedded cell phones from ringing or halt in-car entertainment during stressful driving situations.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration plans to road-test lane guidance devices this fall. The agency, which establishes and enforces federal vehicle safety standards, wants to ensure that such systems can compensate for driver errors. Among other things, the agency will assess driver-warning methods such as the dashboard displays, audio signals, and vibrating driver’s seats. Although these tests aren’t expected to produce federal requirements, they could pave the way for automakers’ adoption of these warning devices.

But clearly, automakers face a delicate task. Besides ensuring that new systems don’t actually add to distractions, they must craft devices that drivers perceive as helpful high-tech aids, not ego-bruising reprimands. Otherwise, drivers won’t want to buy cars that include the new warning systems, industry observers say. “Every driver seems to have the perception that they’re better than average,” notes Sayer. “Not everybody wants to be told on a regular basis that they are doing something wrong.”

In the long term, however, the production of automobiles laden with video and radar sensors could hasten the arrival of passenger vehicles that go beyond warning the driver to actually taking the wheel autonomously, perhaps with the help of a sophisticated road infrastructure.

Although that’s still a distant vision, be warned: cars that do their own back-seat driving are closer than they might appear.

Smart Cars Rev Up: A sampling
(Dearborn, MI) spot
Video sensors that detect objects in a driver’s blind during turns and trigger warnings
(Stuttgart, Germany)
Radar-assisted cruise control that maintains separation from other cars at low speeds (devices
for highway speeds are already in some cars)
DaimlerChrysler, Ford, Honda (Tokyo, Japan), Nissan (Tokyo, Japan) Video sensors that track lane position and warn drivers against drifting into other lanes 2007
(Munich, Germany)
Camera that tracks eyelid movements and triggers an alarm to alert drowsy drivers 2008
DaimlerChrysler, Ford, GM
(Detroit, MI)
Data flow computer that tracks high-stress driving actions and blocks nonessential information 2008

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