'Safety bubble' will eventually surround cars


POSTED: Sunday, March 01, 2009

We could soon be driving cars that will not only be greener, but will be surrounded by a “;virtual safety bubble”; that detects hazardous conditions and reacts appropriately to avoid almost any type of collision.

Driver error is the main cause of accidents, and nearly 95 percent of the 10.6 million vehicles involved in crashes in 2006 were passenger cars or light trucks. The 6 million traffic accidents reported in 2006 are good reason why drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists alike would benefit from this bubble.

Although much of the technology to build the bubble is available now, it is expensive, and it will undergo extensive testing because of litigation that might result from system failures. Drivers in general want to control their own vehicles, so education will be needed to build trust in the new control systems.

Traffic accidents kill about 40,000 people yearly, about 40 percent of which involve a drunken driver. Thirty percent can be attributed to inappropriate speed for existing road and traffic conditions, while more than one-third of fatalities result from vehicles leaving the roadway.

One in four drivers is involved in a traffic accident in any given five-year period, with a fatality every 12 minutes and an injury every 14 seconds.

Passive control systems currently in use are anti-lock braking systems (ABS) that improve steerability and deceleration during hard braking, traction-control systems (TCS) that maintain traction when maneuvering, and electronic stability control (ESC) systems that detect and prevent skids.

Other systems already in use or in the works are emergency brake assist (EBA) systems that boost the effectiveness of brakes during emergency stops, blind-spot detectors (BSD) that warn when vehicles occupy adjacent lanes, and back-over detection systems (BDS) that warn the driver of an unseen obstruction or person when backing up and brake automatically if necessary.

Among other passive features we will see on high-end autos in the near future are forward collision warning (FCW) systems that detect a potential crash and sound an alarm, lane-departure warnings (LDW) that sound an alarm or give tactile warning on the steering wheel when the car strays out of the lane, and traffic sign recognition (TSR) that sounds an alert when entering a zone where traffic rules have changed.

Various car companies are developing active systems that take control of the vehicle in critical situations.

These include automatic braking that senses a potential collision and applies the brakes more precisely and quicker than a human foot, systems that prevent the car from changing lanes when it senses a vehicle in an adjacent lane, and pedestrian recognition systems that use both radar and video to interact with firmware to recognize and react to pedestrians and animals in the roadway, even at night.

Existing ESC uses G-force sensors that can provide an on-board CPU with information. Networking this with an array of other sensors allows for the creation of integrated systems that will build the virtual safety bubble.

It might be a while before the virtual safety bubble is standard equipment in all cars, but it will not be long thereafter that the roadways will be full of cars that completely drive themselves and do not have accidents at all.

Maybe then riding in a car will even be as safe as flying!


Richard Brill is a professor of science at Honolulu Community College. E-mail questions and comments to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).