Wake up, little driver … wake up

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"Our engineering teams tested this technology for thousands of miles in many parts of the country to help ensure it performs on a wide range of roads with different lane markings.” –Michael Kane, vehicle engineering supervisor for driver assistance technologies, Ford Motor Co., discussing the company’s new Lane Keeping System

Lane departure warning (LDW) technology is nothing new to the trucking industry – heck, it’s been proven a life and money saver for nearly half a decade now by some fleets. Yet it’s still something of a rarity for the everyday motorist, as up to this point at least, such systems are offered only on pricey luxury vehicles such as those built by Mercedes Benz.

No more, however.

Starting next year, Ford Motor Co., for example, is going to roll out an optional suite of what it calls “lane keeping technologies” on its 2012 model Explorer sport utility vehicle (SUV) – systems that detect drowsy drivers, helps them stay alert and stay within their lane. And I can bet that, over time, this package is going to migrate to other Ford models as well.

[Here’s a video overview of the technologies involved within Ford’s “lane keeping” suite.]

The reason for Ford’s “lane keeping” push – and that of other light vehicle makers as well – is pretty simple: more than 40% of Americans admit to falling asleep or “nodding off” while driving, according to a survey conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Thus, as you can see, “drowsy driving” is not a problem solely associated with truck drivers – though some in the safety community sure try to paint it that way.

[Irrelevant tangent alert: Of course, the headline for this post features yet another clever attempt to parody another famous song from the past … courtesy of the Everly Brothers.]

Ford’s Lane Keeping System, by the way, is actually an amalgam of three technologies that are designed to work in concert to help drivers stay in control behind the wheel, including a Driver Alert System that can notify drivers if it detects signs of drowsiness.

[And if that particular technology detects drowsiness, a coffee cup light appears on the dashboard instrument cluster to suggest the driver take a break … how apropos!]

Like the Iteris LDW package familiar to many truckers, Ford’s Lane Keeping System uses a small forward-facing camera mounted on the windshield behind the rear view mirror, and is able to identify lane markings on both sides of the vehicle.

[Here's a video detailing how Iteris' LDW system works.]

When the vehicle is on the move, the camera looks at the road ahead and predicts where the vehicle should be positioned relative to the lane markings, explained Raj Nair, Ford’s vp-engineering for global product development.

The camera, of course, is also tied into the Driver Alert System, monitoring the vehicle's movement against lane markings. If it detects a driving pattern consistent with a drowsy driver (weaving across the lane dividers, for example), a first-level chime will sound and a coffee cup warning will appear on the dashboard instrument cluster to recommend the driver take a break.

If the driver does not respond to this alert and the system continues to sense the driver is fatigued, said Nair, another chime sounds and coffee cup appears on the dash. Once a driver stops and either opens the door or turns off the engine, the system resets itself.

The Lane Keeping Alert part of the system warns the driver by vibrating the steering wheel and sounding a warning chime, while the Lane Keeping Aid function warns the driver by applying torque at the steering wheel to direct the vehicle back into the lane, Nair noted.

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When the driver activates the turn signal, though, the system is deactivated so that the vehicle can change lanes without intervention. The driver can override the Lane Keeping Aid at any time through counter steering, hard braking or fast accelerating, Nair pointed out.

In these cases, the system recognizes that the driver has intentionally changed lanes. While steering torque is being applied, the system also can display a warning if a torque sensor determines the driver may not have his or her hands on the steering wheel based on the driver's steering efforts.

If the system still detects the driver's hands may be off the wheel after a few seconds, an audible chime is played to help prevent drivers from inappropriately relying on the Lane Keeping Aid, he added.

One interesting thing about Ford’s system is the “sensitivity” of its settings can be adjusted between normal and increased, which moves the “warning zones” in closer to the center of the lane. The intensity of the steering wheel vibrations can also be adjusted as well, to between low, medium and high. Nair pointed out that the “last-known” setting for each selection is stored so it does not have to be set each time the system is activated.

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Ford’s Lane Keeping System must be turned on by the driver, and will stay on unless the driver turns them off, working both day and night with low-beam headlights. Dashed lines, like those on highways, will appear when the system is activated, said Nair.

There are other visual aids as well, he added. For example, a green line indicates the system is available and ready to provide a warning. A flashing yellow line means the system has just provided a Lane Keeping Aid warning, while a flashing red line notifies the driver of a Lane Keeping Alert warning.

Gray lines, however, indicate the system is suppressed because the vehicle is traveling at less than the 40-mph activation speed, the road is poorly marked, or adverse environmental conditions do not allow the camera to determine road markings.

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Altogether, it’s pretty neat stuff. More importantly, though, Ford’s package highlights the need among everyday motorists for the same systems truckers have now been using for several years – a need heightened by the fact that “four wheelers” overwhelmingly tend to be the responsible party in truck-car collisions.

Indeed, accident research conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) several years ago showed in 73% of the truck-car crashes studied, no unsafe act on the part of the truck driver caused the accident.

Other crash data compiled form that research indicated that that car drivers are four times more likely to rear end a truck than truckers are to rear end cars; are 10 times more likely to crash into a truck head on than vice versa; are three times more likely to speed in poor road conditions than truck drivers; and are eight times more likely to be involved in crashes involving drowsiness than truckers.

Let me say that last line again … eight times more likely to be involved in crashes involving drowsiness than truckers. That salient fact alone is why such “lane keeping systems” like the one Ford is rolling out is technology long overdue for everyday motorists.

What's Trucks at Work?

Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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