"Automobiles are on their way to becoming electronic devices with a few mechanical systems," said Henry Ford's great grandson, Bill Ford, who addressed attendees at Convergence, the bi-annual automotive electronics event held last month in Detroit.
Convergence was a great opportunity to see how the next generation of automobiles will benefit from their ever-larger bill of electronic materials. I thought the most exciting developments were in "active safety" systems, where automotive electronics go beyond convenience and comfort to help reduce fatalities and injuries—and lower our insurance rates!
Some current active safety systems work independently of driver interaction. Electronic stability control and rollover mitigation use sensor-gathered data on yaw and speed to stabilize the auto via automatic braking and balancing of suspension systems. But the next wave of advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) will take data from sensors and cameras and then convey that information via displays and warning systems to the driver to help reduce the chances of an accident.
Front-object detection systems extend the functionality of current "active" cruise-control systems. New systems use sensors and/or cameras to detect hazards in the road and relay warnings to the driver. The systems can use infrared headlamps and other "night vision" techniques to gain extra-sensory perception and aid the driver via heads-up monitors and alerts.
If an accident is unavoidable, the car can automatically link active safety with passive safety systems and go into "accident preparedness" mode: Seat angles are adjusted, seatbelts tighten, the windows and sunroof close, and brakes are applied (up to 0.3 g, the max allowed by law for automatic braking).
In addition to keeping an electronic eye on the road ahead, next-generation cars also will watch their sides and rear, aiding the driver with lane-drift monitoring and blind-spot detection. Cameras can determine and follow lane markings and warn drivers if they drift across the solid yellow line. Similarly, if the driver starts to change lanes unaware of a vehicle in the blind spot, the car will sound an alarm. Tomorrow's cars also will offer lane-change assistance and rear-view monitoring.
With all the information today's driver has to process—myriad data from telematics, cell communications, and navigation systems—auto companies are also researching driver distraction and ways to help prioritize the information that is presented to the driver. If the car determines that traffic or weather conditions are especially demanding (i.e,. the driver is in the midst of a harrowing five-lane merge), then an incoming phone call or a navigational alert would be delayed until the maneuver is completed.
WATCHING THE DRIVER
Besides looking outside the car, cameras can be integrated inside the cabin. Cameras trained on the driver's face can tell whether the driver is watching the road or even if the driver's head has nodded into doze mode. A camera on the passenger side can determine occupant position and deploy the airbags appropriately.
While the first phase of such active safety systems is warning the driver, the second phase could be accident-avoidance systems where the car takes control for the driver. The potential of these systems is being debated as U.S. drivers and the U.S. legal system offer stronger resistance than in some Asian countries like Japan, where drivers and laws are more accepting of driver automation.
Japanese drivers will be trying out automated control in start/stop conditions, as cars track movement in front of them and stop and start according to the traffic flow. Apparently, stop-and-go driving is a way of life in Japan, so fully automatic takeoff and braking could be put to good use much of the time.
One automated driving scenario that should find enthusiastic acceptance in the North American market is parallel-parking assistance. Here, the car will determine whether it can fit into a parking space, and then it will perform mathematical calculations to find the best progression of maneuvers to slide into the space. Drivers can keep their hands off the wheel, using only the brake and accelerator to allow the car to self-navigate into the space.
As automated driving technology finds its way into drivers' confidence, it opens the future vision of intelligent highway systems (IHSs), where cars could pull onto the freeway and drive themselves. With the addition of roadside-to-car and car-to-car communications to the new toolsets already on display at Convergence 2004, it is easy to see that the IHS of the future isn't many years away.
For more about active safety systems, check out the Web sites of system manufacturers Hella (www.hella.com) and Continental Automotive Systems (www.contitevesna.com). To see my exclusive online report on some of the new components and technologies at the show, see "New Electronics Drive Convergence 2004," Drill Deeper 9090, at www.elecdesign.com.