Improving safety through wireless connections

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Tomorrow’s vehicles will one day be able to talk to each other to avoid accidents.” –Jim Vondale, director, Ford Automotive Safety Office

Here’s a neat idea: tying vehicle-based crash avoidance systems via wireless not only to other vehicles but to traffic signals and even stop signs at roadway intersections.

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That way, not only can vehicles “talk” to one another, relying vital location, speed, and directional data, but intersections can as well – warning drivers if they are approaching a traffic signal or stop sign too fast.

Taking this all a step further, “active” safety systems – such as automatic braking – could also be tied to intersections as well, slowing down and even stopping vehicles automatically to avoid running red lights and stop signs.

These are but some of the technology frontiers Ford Motor Co. and other OEMs are exploring today. Ford, for one, is deep into testing wireless vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication pathways that link to its Automatic Braking Intersection Collision Avoidance System (ABICAS) – technology that uses radio-based wireless sensors, GPS and navigation information to detect the relative location of other radio-equipped vehicles and locations.

[You can see how this “Smart intersection” works at the beginning of this video below. The driving simulator seen later in this clip highlights how Ford’s collision warning system is designed to work.]

Ford says ABICAS uses works in conjunction with radar- and camera-based driver assist features, such as adaptive cruise control and collision warning with brake support – technology that’s currently available on many of its models.

While radar and camera sensors can detect other vehicles ahead and behind a vehicle, radio-based wireless sensors give vehicles a 360-degree “view,” says Jim Vondale, director of Ford’s Automotive Safety Office

Information from these various sensors is combined with engineering algorithms to ensure the validity of an imminent collision before automatically activating the vehicle’s brakes – all of which happens in a split second, he notes.

[You can watch some of Ford’s collision avoidance systems at work in the clip below.]

When a vehicle is equipped with a dedicated short-range wireless radio, it can communicate with similarly equipped vehicles, and use the shared information in concert with its safety systems. Yet that same connection is being taken a step further with the “Smart Intersection” project, developing wireless communications between vehicles and intersection infrastructure.

That’s important because intersections remain fertile ground for vehicle crashes. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 40%of all traffic accidents occur in intersections where side-impact collisions are most common.

The Smart Intersection project communicates with test vehicles to warn drivers of potential collisions, such as when a vehicle is about to run through a red light. The intersection is outfitted with technology that monitors traffic signal status, GPS data and digital maps to assess potential hazards, and then transmits warning information to other specially equipped vehicles, notes Mike Shulman, technical leader at Ford’s active safety research and advanced engineering division.

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Once the information is received by the vehicle, its collision avoidance system can be designed to determine whether the vehicle can safely cross the intersection or if it needs to stop before entering the intersection. If the system determines the need to stop and senses that the driver is not decelerating quickly enough, it issues visual and audible warnings to the driver, Shulman points out.

“For vehicle-to-vehicle communications to be effective, common standards will need to be established for all automakers to follow,” he stresses. “Our research is helping to identify the types of warnings that drivers find to be effective and easier to understand.”

Ford and other automakers are already in the midst of testing the feasibility of a wireless “vehicle-to-vehicle” communications network in Germany, primarily to address congestion-related traffic safety issues.

Given the clunky name Safe and Intelligent Mobility-Test Field Germany, this research project runs through 2012 and involves a 400-vehicle field-test to evaluate feasibility and scalability of wireless systems in the real world, notes Christian Ress, connectivity technical expert for telematics research and advanced engineering with Ford Europe.

For the project, 100 drivers actively collect data by completing driving tasks and 300 drivers passively collect data by driving wherever they would normally go, Ress notes.

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“This project is taking into consideration hazard and collision warnings, the delivery of real-time traffic information such as congestions, construction areas, detour routes, and Internet-enabled location-based services,” Ress points out. “Deployment of reliable and effective wireless systems can enhance vehicle safety, reduce traffic accidents and ease congestion. We will bring these systems to market when they have been fully assessed for feasibility, robustness and practicality.”

Of course, this is only the beginning and lots more work needs to be done. Ress notes that governments, standards organizations and other global automakers need to develop harmonized global standards to support and accelerate the deployment of such technology so OEMs can develop reliable and – most importantly – cost-effective wireless systems.

“We must develop these standards now while the technology is being researched and developed or we will end up with a variety of standards and vehicles that cannot talk to each other from region to region,” adds Vondale. “Failure to develop standards would delay deployment, decrease reliability and unnecessarily increase costs.”

Like I said, there’s a long, long way to go before any of this becomes a practical reality. But it’s a technological pathway that could add a big extra cushion of safety for trucks large and small should it surmount the challenges posed by reliability and cost.

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