December 8, 2008


Crashless Cars: Making Driving Safer: Next-generation automotive safety technology could give us vehicles that are difficult to crash—and eventually may not need drivers at all (Steven Ashley, December 8, 2008, Scientific American Magazine)

The empty highway stretches straight out to the horizon, so I take a moment to peek at the electronic display down in the car’s center console. I read out the numbers on the screen swiftly and glance back to the windshield, when I see ... nothing. A dense fog has swallowed the roadway, and I am driving blind. Before I can feel for the foot brake, an unmistakable warning—a brake-light red rectangle—flashes onto the windshield. Without another thought, I slam hard on the pedal, cursing loudly. My vehicle comes to a hasty halt as a disabled car emerges abruptly from the murk dead ahead.

Before I can even exhale, bright lights burn all around, and laughter rings out incongruously through the passenger cabin. I remember suddenly that I’m sitting inside the VIRTTEX (VIRtual Test Track EXperiment) driving simulator lab at Ford’s Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Mich. The big, egg-shaped simulator dome enables specialists there to conduct driving tests under totally safe but highly convincing virtual-reality conditions. The disembodied mirth on the intercom is the control-room technicians having a chuckle over my brief discomfiture.

For the past quarter of an hour they have thrown various tasks at me—each one designed to demonstrate the dangers of driving while distracted. One of my jobs—the last one, in fact—had been to look down at the central display when asked and call out the numbers that appeared there without losing control of the vehicle. Glances away from the road that are longer than two seconds double the odds of a crash or near crash.

During the follow-up debriefing, Mike Blommer, technical leader at the VIRTTEX lab, tells me that the windshield alarm that popped up during the final task is a visual alert generated by a forward-collision warning unit on Volvos. The system acts like an electronic guardian angel, monitoring traffic up front with radars and cameras and signaling the driver when it senses danger. The warning’s marked resemblance to a standard red brake light is no accident, he notes: “The engineers chose that particular signal because its meaning is intuitively clear to every experienced driver. Even though you’d never seen it before, you knew exactly what it meant and took corrective action.”

This system is just one example of the latest generation of advanced safety devices designed to ward off traffic accidents. Although they are currently available on many high-end car models, these technologies are starting to migrate to lower-cost cars and trucks as well. And the next major iteration of collision avoidance technology should be even more effective, as it will be able to engage the brakes automatically without any input from the driver at all. These and related safety capabilities may herald a new era for the automobile, a time in which car owners become increasingly willing to accept automated assistance on the road, even if that means ceding to robotic systems some of their traditional feelings of mastery over their vehicles. Within a few decades, experts say, many advanced cars will be able to avoid most crashes. At some point, in fact, they will drive themselves. that in order to make them human-friendly you have to remove humans from the equation of operating them.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 8, 2008 5:36 PM
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