Auto Electronics

Multiple technologies vie for automotive safety

Despite all the advances in making automobiles safer, accidents continue to occur. And statistics show that deaths resulting from automobile accidents have not declined. In fact, in the United States and Europe alone more than 40,000 people per year are killed in automobile-related accidents, and countless more are injured, according to a recent report by market research firm ABI Research. Therefore, safety continues to be a high priority with carmakers. And obstacle-detection technologies such as ultrasonic, radar, lidar (laser radar), and camera-based safety systems are being developed to address many of the causes of these accidents.

“Widespread adoption is needed if we are to achieve a significant improvement in accident statistics,” noted senior analyst David Alexander and author of the report “Automotive Obstacle Detection Systems.” While some of these obstacle-detection systems have been available for a number of years in the high-end models, the cost must come down before they make a dent in the low and mid-range vehicles. However, ABI Research's report finds that the market is primed to take advantage of the benefits of a number of different approaches to obstacle detection, and that some technologies are going to drop in cost more rapidly than others. But in the absence of legislation, it will be interesting to see how many buyers will prefer to pay more for safety.

For large-scale adoption, camera-based detection systems have the capability of being a dominant sensor technology for automotive safety applications, noted Alexander. Consequently, ABI Research's report is projecting a 50% worldwide compound average annual growth rate for camera-based systems for the next six years. By that account, about 15 million units will be shipped by 2012. This year, worldwide shipment is expected to be around a million units.

Meanwhile, Japan's Honda Motor Co., Ltd. sees electronic perception technology, pioneered by Silicon Valley start-up Canesta Inc., as an attractive alternative to radar, stereo vision, and similar other sensor technologies. According to Canesta's recent announcement, Honda Motor Co. has made multiple investments in the company over the past three years to assist Canesta in its development of new automotive safety applications for its EPT technology. The aim is to apply Canesta's 3-D camera-based sensing technology across all classes of vehicles. Some of the applications for EPT being investigated include occupant sensing, parking assistance, pedestrian detection, and collision avoidance.

“Honda is committed to the development and application of new technologies that can lead to driver support and safety improvements in all classes of vehicles,” said Toshinori Arita, head of Honda Strategic Venturing, a corporate venture arm of Honda Motor Co., Ltd. “Among the leading-edge technologies, one of the most interesting is the family of low-cost, 3-D sensors pioneered by Canesta, that could help us provide advanced safety systems in our vehicles.” These comments were made in a recent press release sent by Canesta.

From a safety standpoint, Hella's use of laser radar in adaptive cruise control (ACC) technology may soon find its way into North American vehicle programs. DaimlerChrysler is believed to be giving serious consideration to lidar as a lower-cost alternative to standard microwave/millimeter-wave radar-based ACC.

“Lidar can reduce the cost of an ACC system by 50%,” said Winfried Menge, director of marketing electronics for Hella KGaA Hueck & Co. Hella's ACC solution is part of the driver assistance systems (DAS) technologies being developed as a comprehensive solution to reduce accidents and fatalities. Besides ACC, DAS addresses many other applications such as rear-end collision warning, lane-departure warning (LDW), rearview cameras and sensors with advanced image-processing software.

With support from Toyota Motor and Denso Corp., semiconductor supplier NEC Electronics has developed an image processor for automobiles, which can detect nearby objects such as vehicles, pedestrians, and lane markers in real-time, enabling automobile manufacturers to easily implement safety mechanisms and collision prevention systems. Called IMAPCAR, it will be featured in the pre-crash safety system of the new Lexus LS460 developed by Toyota, scheduled to be available this fall.

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