U.S.A.:Emerging crash-avoidance systems: Will drivers want them?
By John Porretto / AP Auto Writer
DETROIT -- A small camera atop the rearview mirror zeroes in on the car ahead and the video appears on a monitor embedded in the dashboard, where you might expect to find a radio.
As you get closer, a green box on the monitor envelopes the other vehicle, in this case a Ford Mustang. Get even closer -- too close for safety -- and the box around the Mustang turns to red.
If this were a fighter jet, the pilot might depress the trigger.
But this is a Ford Explorer concept vehicle, sensing a crash may be imminent. So the seat belts tighten automatically and a computerized voice beckons, "Warning."
Hopefully, the driver will brake quickly enough to avoid an accident.
That's the goal of the automakers, suppliers and government agencies that are spending billions to develop high-tech devices that make vehicles "smarter" -- alerting motorists if they're approaching other vehicles or curves too quickly or drifting off the road.
In some cases, a radar-induced crash-avoidance system would take control of the vehicle's braking, slowing it automatically. In others, "smart" intersections, which also are in the works, would alert an approaching car to impending danger.
Those working with the technology say its use in vehicles in North America is still at least a few years away. Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co., however, have begun offering crash-warning devices in a limited number of vehicles in Japan.
"One of the things we're trying to determine is what's the right way to bring this information to the driver," said Ron Miller, a technology project leader at Ford Motor Co. "At this point, there doesn't seem to be a definitive way to do that."
Miller and other Ford engineers have equipped a single 2002 Explorer with no less than six telematics and accident-avoidance systems. The concept SUV has cameras that give drivers a clear view around large vehicles in front and monitors that provide tire pressure and temperature.
The ultimate goal is to reduce fatal crashes, which have risen in the United States each year since 1998 and totaled more than 42,000 in 2001, according to the Department of Transportation. About 41 percent occurred when vehicles left the road.
President Bush wants to spend $1.7 billion over the next six years on intelligent transportation systems, 20 percent more than in the past six. But National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spokesman Rae Tyson said talk of a government mandate on crash-avoidance systems is premature.
"We need to see if the technology can be perfected so it would be a benefit to motorists," Tyson said.
A key consideration for automakers is whether to install crash-avoidance equipment so it works automatically, without prompting from the driver, or whether to make it active only after engaged by the driver.
Honda has chosen the first option, Toyota the second.
In Honda's "collision mitigation brake system," radar in the front of the car detects vehicles within 300 feet. If the driver is approaching too quickly, the system initially pulls on the seat belt and brakes slightly. A buzzer goes off and a small light flashes on the dashboard.
If the driver steps on the brakes, another system kicks in to strengthen their power. If the driver fails to respond, the car brakes more and tightens the seat belt further to soften the blow of the crash. The system is not designed to stop the car completely.
To avoid sudden, automatic braking in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the vehicle must be traveling at least 10 mph for the brakes to engage. The system also is designed to remain inactive when traffic is flowing at roughly the same speed.
Toyota's crash-warning system, which brakes and tightens the seat belt ahead of a crash, does not activate until the driver steps on the brakes. For now, it's offered as an option on a luxury model sold only in Japan.
Honda spokesman Andy Boyd said his company hasn't determined if a market exists in the United States for such equipment, which costs about $3,000 in Japan. And because Honda's system works on its own, product liability lawsuits are a consideration, more so than in less-litigious Japan, he said.
Mike Wall, an auto industry analyst with CSM Worldwide, said extras like leather seats likely would be more appealing to consumers than crash-avoidance radar, at least for now. But he added that "as electronics progress and pricing comes down, I think you'll start to see it trickle in."
Engineers also must figure a way to characterize the physical world so the devices detect only what they're supposed to.
"There's almost infinite variety in the design and maintenance of roads in the United States," said Bob Vallance, director for product planning at auto supplier Visteon Corp, which is working with the University of Michigan on developing the technology. "One of the things consumers have told us clearly through market research is they don't want to be bothered with false warnings."
Some of the questions Ford is considering: How much of the technology should be standard, and how much should be optional? Is the same system appropriate for all brands? Do 55-year-old drivers react to stimuli the same as younger drivers?
One research project now in its latter stages is a $35 million partnership between the U.S. Department of Transportation, General Motors Corp., Delphi Corp. and the University of Michigan.
The 5-year project's goal is to evaluate and enhance crash-avoidance technology that employs two features: adaptive cruise control, which automatically adjusts a vehicle's speed to maintain a steady distance from a vehicle ahead, and a forward collision-warning system.
Adaptive cruise control is already available on a limited number of vehicles and many semi-trucks.
The collision-warning system, still in development, uses satellites, radar and electronic sensors to determine whether a driver is approaching a slower or stopped vehicle too quickly. It alerts the driver with a series of beeps and visual cues that appear on the windshield.
GM has enlisted 78 drivers in Michigan to test 10 Buick LeSabres equipped with both features -- drivers the company says are barred from discussing their findings with outside sources.
If the participants are like most drivers, researchers say, they may bolster findings that indicate the biggest challenges to crash-avoidance systems are not technical.
Visteon research indicates it will be difficult to persuade motorists that they need the added protection: Most consider themselves to be good drivers.
"We haven't found a bad driver yet," Vallance said. "So there's this whole idea of educating people as to the need. The issue of consumer acceptance may be more of a challenge than the technological solution itself."
Shannon Wisok, a mother of two and a former auto mechanic from Canton, Mich., says she's concerned some drivers would become less vigilant and too dependent on the enhancements. She'd also be reluctant to cede control of her vehicle to an electronic gadget.
"That would be scary," Wisok said. "You wouldn't know it failed until it failed."
Kris Plukarski is one motorist who feels differently, and hopes automakers make crash-avoidance equipment available soon. A saleswoman in Mississippi who drives 5,000 to 6,000 miles a month, Plukarski says she'd consider anything that would make her travels safer.
"I don't think it would make me any less cautious," she said. "You're going to drive the way you drive. This just gives you an extra set of eyes on the road."
Paul Sancya / Associated Press
Several automakers and suppliers, along with agencies such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, are testing high-tech systems that alert motorists if they're approaching other vehicles or curves too quickly or drifting off the road.
Eight 'smart' vehicle technologies
Automakers, government agencies and others are working to perfect front-end crash-avoidance technology for passenger vehicles in the United States.
A look at other new traffic technologies, some of which are still in development:
-- Rear-end collision avoidance for passenger cars: Alerts driver or takes control of accelerator and brakes to maintain a safe distance.
-- Road-departure avoidance for passenger cars: Warns drivers when they're about to drift off road and crash or when they're traveling too fast for an upcoming curve.
-- Intersection collision avoidance: Systems that warn drivers they're about to run a red light or crash into a vehicle crossing its path, and that help drivers make turns at intersections without directional arrow signals.
-- Rollover warnings: Warns drivers they're about to rollover.
-- Trucker advisory system: Warns drivers when they're approaching a spot with a high rate of commercial vehicle crashes.
-- Automatic collision notification: Sends emergency signal to fleet operator's emergency control center when there's a crash.
-- Transit vehicle lane change and merge notification: Warns bus driver of imminent side collisions.
-- Transit rear-end collision notification: Warns bus drivers of an impending collision.
Source: Department of Transportation, automakers.
(Photo) A video monitor embedded in the dashboard of a Ford Explorer concept vehicle shows a vehicle ahead of it, with a green box around it. Get too close for safety, and the box turns to red, which senses that a crash may be imminent. This makes the seat belts tighten automatically and a computerized voice beckon, "Warning."
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....