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Monday, September 26, 2011
Five New Automotive Technologies On The Horizon
New technology that is already showing up in some luxury model cars will be showing up in lower priced models in the next few years. While seemingly futuristic, most of the technology utilizes off-the-shelf technology that is being adapted for new purposes. While offering great hope for preventing collisions, they are also creating some concerns.
In January of 2011, Google announced that a fleet of autonomous Toyota Priuses had been driving the roads and highways of California for more than a year. These vehicles had a human driver to monitor the systems and take over in case of a failure but otherwise were totally autonomous. The only recorded collision with one of the vehicles involved another driver who rear-ended one of the Priuses. Sanford University developed an autonomous Audi that climbed Pikes Peak in Colorado without human control. As a result of these developments, the State of Nevada passed legislation to develop regulations for autonomous vehicles.
Some of the concepts that are already in use or being developed for use in the near future are:
1. Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) – BMW, Toyota, and Ford all have some form of ACC. This system allows the driver to set a particular speed and then all the driver has to do is steer. The ACC uses radar to determine the speed of vehicles ahead and, if the vehicles get too close, the ACC either warns the driver to slow down or takes over and slows to maintain a safe distance and prevent a collision.
2. Driver Assist System (DAS) – The DAS uses cameras and works with the ACC to keep the vehicle within the proper lane. Again, the system can warn the driver of a lane departure or it can take over, using adaptive braking and steering to keep the vehicle in the proper lane. More complex forms of the system can also recognize street signs and announce information the driver should know or, in the case of speed limits, adjust the speed accordingly.
3. Internet Connectivity – The University of Michigan received a grant to start development of wireless traffic control in Ann Arbor Michigan. Eventually, the program will equip 3,000 cars with short range radio receivers that, along with GPS, will announce their position to other similarly equipped cars. Radio controlled infrastructure, traffic lights, street signs, etc. will also communicate with the vehicles. The goal is to establish a national standard for wireless technology to monitor a vehicle’s position in relation to other vehicles on the road and prevent collisions.
4. Biometric Monitoring Systems-These systems can use cameras to monitor a driver’s attention and sound an alarm if it appears that the driver is distracted or is becoming drowsy. Other elements of these systems can monitor the driver’s heart rate and respiration through sensors in the steering wheel and, if the driver should suffer a heart attack or a stroke, can slow the vehicle and steer it to the edge of the road while calling 911 for help.
5. Alcohol Detection- This system will use respiration monitors either in the headrest or the steering wheel to detect a driver’s blood alcohol content and, if the driver registers the legal limit of .08 BAC, will not allow the car to start. Congress is watching development of this system and may mandate its use in cars as early as 2018.
These systems offer the promise of drastically reducing the current rate of more than five million collisions a year to a fraction of that amount. At the same time, since cars will always know where they are in relation to the other vehicles on the road and can stay in the lane and prevent rear-end collisions, traffic will move a lot faster and more smoothly without the need to build new highways.
There are some concerns about these systems. What happens if there is a failure in the system? The results could be chaotic and possibly tragic. Some have raised the concern of the wireless communication systems being hacked resulting in chaos.
If drivers become reliant on the automatic systems, will they be able to react quickly and properly in the event of a system failure? Some in the aviation industry have recently wondered if pilots are becoming too reliant on automatic flight control systems and have forgotten how to react correctly in an emergency. Their concerns are based on the actions of pilots in crashes in Buffalo NY and an Air France crash over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. In both cases, once the aircraft left controlled flight, the pilots not only took the wrong actions but actually did the exact opposite of what they should have done.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has expressed concerns about the transition period from the current vehicle models to the autonomous vehicles. Once a standard is set and the systems are mandated in new vehicles, there will still be a ten to twenty year period before the older models are taken off the road. There may have to be lanes dedicated to autonomous vehicles, somewhat like the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes in some cities.
If vehicles are connected wirelessly and autonomous, how will new drivers learn how to drive? We may need to consider new driver training programs for teens and take new drivers out to remote rural areas to learn how to physically drive a car. Without that type of driver training, they won't know how to react properly if the need arises to take over control of the vehicle in an emergency.