Hitting the brakes: smart cars of future will stop highway deaths


On a pier behind the convention center in New York City where an Intelligent Transport Systems exhibition was being held, I backed an Infiniti out of an obscured parking place as both rear- and side-mounted sensors detected an approaching vehicle.
In quick succession, the system sounded an alarm and then automatically applied the brakes when I fail to do so.
The action takes milliseconds, quick enough to prevent a rear-end collision. But it would not prevent a collision if an oncoming vehicle were traveling as fast as 25 mph, admits Mitsuhiko Yamashita, an executive vice president and member of the Nissan board of directors.
Backup accident prevention is one of two new technologies in Nissan’s All-Around Collision-Free prototype displayed in the U.S. for the first time in conjunction with the ITS exhibit.
The other is a lane-departure-prevention system that not only warns the driver when drifting into a lane occupied by another vehicle, but also nudges the Nissan vehicle back into its lane to prevent a collision.
Nissan engineers accomplish this by using part of the vehicle-dynamic control and yaw-control systems that engage the brakes on the opposite side of the vehicle to tug it back into a safe lane. Yamashita says these systems could be in production in the next decade with luxury cars (Infiniti) offering the features first.
Nissan also demonstrated a red light collision-warning system that not only sounds an alarm, but also automatically applies the brakes if a driver fails to do so when approaching the signal.
The system is able to communicate with the traffic signal to determine the timing of the color and phase of the light. An onboard computer then calculates the speed of the vehicle to determine when it will arrive at the intersection. If the computer determines an accident could occur, it initiates a warning and brakes to prevent a crash.
Whether such systems take complete control of a vehicle will be up to consumers, Yamashita says. Nissan will have to determine if its customers are willing to pay for increased electronic systems that take more decisions away from drivers. Yamashita says many customers still want the freedom to control their vehicles, rather than surrender such functions to computers.
“We should keep the pleasure of driving for car owners,” he says. “Others should go to public transportation.”
Other car makers that displayed similar ITS hardware included Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Toyota and Volkswagen. Their systems also feature automatic prevention of running red lights. Intelligent-transportation technology enabling car-to-car communications and interaction with highway infrastructure won’t be introduced until the middle of the next decade, forecasts Jurgen Leohold, executive director-group research for Volkswagen AG. However, Leohold is encouraged with the acceptance of blind-spot detection and lane-departure technology in Volkswagen and Audi models. Like other automakers, he predicts ITS innovations will debut in luxury models first and trickle down to less-expensive vehicles.
“Customers don’t want to pay anything for added safety in the U.S.,” Leohold says. Yet, American car buyers are willing to pay a few hundred dollars more for comfort and added convenience, he says.
A new Mercedes-Benz traffic-signal recognition system is designed to eliminate accidents caused by drivers running red lights. Sascha Simon, manager-advanced product planning for Mercedes-Benz USA, says equipping production cars with traffic-signal recognition systems must await upgraded roadway infrastructures that would allow traffic signals to communicate with cars — something that may be more than a decade away.
Mercedes developed a system with this capability at its research facility in Palo Alto, Calif. It is tied into the vehicle-navigation unit’s GPS. When the car is approaching an intersection, it receives a signal on the status of the signal light. If the driver fails to slow for a red light, audible and visual warnings alert the driver to stop. Failure to do so triggers the car’s automatic emergency braking.
Mark V. Rosenker, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told attendees at the ITS show that 5,000 to 10,000 highway deaths could be eliminated with the latest crash-avoidance technology. He says such safety technology should be standard in today’s cars.

Copyright, Motor Matters, 2009