Monday, November 28, 2011

Cutting-edge car safety technological innovations - reducing human error

Over the last several decades, the automotive industry has made significant progress in passive safety technologies, including seat belts, safety glass, padded dashboards and energy-absorbing steering columns, head restraints, and front and side airbags.  Many were implemented as a result of the unanimous passage in the U.S. Congress of the 1966 National Highway Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act.  These in turn were spurred by public concern over escalating traffic fatalities, Ralph Nader's advocacy of automobile safety, and the publicity generated by the publication of Nader's 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed.  The 1966 Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, established the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and marked a historic shift in responsibility for automobile safety from the consumer to the manufacturer. 

Though the car companies' lobbyists managed to water down the safety standards in the final bill considerably, the NHTMVSA did result in safer cars: it required "the padding and softening of interior surfaces and protrusions" (take a look at the interior knobs on a car from the 1950s sometime), seat belts for every passenger, impact-absorbing steering wheels, rupture-resistant fuel tanks (although Ford managed to side-step this with the Pinto), door latches that stayed latched in crashes, side-view mirrors, shatter-resistant windshields and windshield defrosters, and lights on the sides of cars as well as the front and back.  For its part, the Highway Safety Act required road builders to install guardrails, better streetlights and signs, and stronger barriers between opposing lanes of traffic.

While all of these passive technologies have saved many lives over the years (and active airbag technologies have been commercially available since the early 1990's), much remains to be improved and traffic accidents still represent a major safety issue world-wide.    The bottom line is that the vehicles have become much safer, but the drivers have not.  Research has shown that the majority of collisions are caused by driver error or inattention.  In this article, I will discuss new technologies that may enhance the safety of cars by mitigating human error - keeping in mind that human mis-use of other new technologies (particularly the use of cell phones and texting while driving) constitute a major source of driver distraction which are rapidly adding to the tragic statistics of motor vehicle fatalities. 

Driven by the dropping prices, miniaturization, and speed/power of computer technology within the last 3 decades (compare and contrast an IBM computer from 1983 to an Apple iPhone 4G from late 2011), a new generation of active safety technologies could help to bridge the gap between man and machine in terms of vehicle safety.   The earliest progenitors of these new-generation systems were anti-lock brakes (ABS) and electronic stability control (ESC), the latter of which prevents skids by cutting back power and, when necessary, braking individual wheels.  ABS is the more mature of these two technologies, whereas ESC has been implemented in production cars more recently. 

The next phase of the new-generation systems have been designed by automotive engineers with the concept of avoiding crashes in the first place.  These systems are intelligent active safety systems based on state-of-the-art radar, night vision, camera and sensor technologies, lane departure warning, collision avoidance systems, and autonomous emergency-brake functions, all of which can provide drivers with critical help in accident avoidance. 

According to an article in the American Automobile Association (AAA) Motorist November/December 2011 issue by Richard Hamilton, Chairman of AAA East Central, over 1/3 of all collisions are caused by unsafe lane changes or unintentional lane departure (likely that the latter are largely due to distracted or fatigued drivers).   Lane departure warnings help safeguard against the tendency to lose concentration when distracted or fatigued.  Hamilton states that another 1/3 of collisions in the U.S. are caused by front-end or rear-end collisions, which are almost always the result of inattention and/or tailgating (following too closely).   Volvo currently offers a unique City Safety feature, which is standard equipment on the Volvo XC60 and helps drivers to avoid low-speed (less than 20 mph) rear-end collisions by letting the car brake itself if the driver does not react in time. The system works by scanning the space ahead of the car with an invisible infrared radar called lidar. It will be interesting to see how this technology emerges and whether Volvo can implement it safely for higher road speeds as opposed to just low-speed rear-end collision avoidance.  However, Volvos equipped with the automaker’s City Safety collision avoidance system have been shown by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) to have 27% fewer accidents than comparable vehicles. That’s a huge reduction, says the HLDI.

A major advance that should surface in the next few years is vehicle to vehicle (V2V) technology, which was first introduced by General Motors.  This technology allows vehicles to communicate with one another to avoid collisions.  The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that V2V systems could alleviate up to 80% of car and motorcycle crashes involving unimpaired drivers.   To me, this is exciting, and rampant consumer demand for much smaller, cheaper, and more powerful cell phones and computers (notebooks and tablets) should provide the framework for automakers to translate these technologies into hopefully affordable and standard equipment collision-avoidance devices in most cars.

New technologies could help to protect pedestrians as well, particularly cooperative sensor technologies.  BMW is developing a pedestrian protection system that communicates wireless data with an active module, similar to an advanced radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip that could be integrated into a child's school backpack.

More futuristic concepts are also being explored today by many automakers, particularly GPS and transponder-based technologies that allow vehicles to be operated without any input whatsoever from the driver.  While these technologies make me a bit nervous, once perfected, it would be nice to just sit in the car and read or work on the laptop while commuting or especially while making a 5- or 6-hour road trip.  During such autonomous driving, the vehicle is able to assume control over braking, steering, and acceleration, and can be grouped into a "road train" of similarly controlled vehicles.  If ever this is actually successfully and safely implemented, the impact not only on safety but also on traffic jams would be phenomenally beneficial, as most traffic jams result from the cumulative serial delay (in a line of cars) of one car after another waiting for the driver ahead to lift his or her foot off the brake and begin acceleration.  If this acceleration from a complete stop could be synchronized rather than occurring in a "wave motion", many minutes would be freed up from every commute.   Audi has been working with autonomous vehicles for some time, and last year an Audi TTS gained global recognition when it scaled the entire 12.42 miles (~20 km) and 156 S-turns of Pike's Peak (a 4300 m elevation mountain in Colorado) in a very respectable 27 minutes.   A professional driver in the same car could complete the course in about 17 minutes, so it's just a matter of time until the computer catches up. 

While these systems are all exciting and clearly have the potential to save many lives, some worry that a false sense of security from these devices may encourage more reckless driving.  Additionally, many people are going to be reluctant to give up their autonomy to a computer given all of the "what ifs" regarding computer viruses, sabotage of critical infrastructure networks or sensors, mechanical or computer breakdown, effects of inclement weather, etc.  I think all of these systems can be integrated to some extent, but without diminishing the driver's sense of control over the vehicle or the enjoyment of driving.  Additionally, a very important factor will be systems that can deny the privilege of driving from those who cannot safely drive - the impaired, due to either drunk driving or substance abuse or simply due to fatigue.   In particular, safety systems with sensors that can test blood alcohol level of the driver are being developed, and when implemented will have a profound effect on highway safety. 



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