OEMs and suppliers have made huge gains when it comes to implementing vehicle safety technologies with the goal of making America's road safer: traffic fatalities declined 3.9% between 2006 and 2007, with injuries dropping 3.3%. Numerous advanced safety technologies, including lane departure warning sensors, blind spot detection devices, and emergency brake assistance systems, should make travel even safer in the future. But what if engineers and programmers could make these and future technologies work in complete harmony to improve collision avoidance and better protect occupants in the event a collision is unavoidable? What if engineering teams could introduce data from outside sources, such as navigation systems and vehicle-to-vehicle communications, to make the driving experience even safer? It's a complex idea, but teams of engineers at Continental (www.conti-online.com) are working on technologies that utilize systems inside and outside the vehicle to make travel even safer than it is today, using cameras, sensors and satellites to provide a truly connected safety system that allows passive and active technologies to work in complete harmony.
The supplier's ContiGuard safety system uses a risk calculator in the vehicle to determine the probability of a traffic accident in any scenario to avoid, and ultimately eliminate, vehicle collisions. "In the ideal future world, the vehicle will be able to use car-to-car communications to see what lies ahead and prevent the accident altogether. However, if an accident is unavoidable, all of the safety systems and telematics data will take into consideration what's happening both inside and outside the car and respond in most effective manner possible," says Ralf Cramer, president of Continental's chassis and safety division. The company envisions systems that use data including weather, road conditions and traffic congestion-provided via the vehicle's navigation system and vehicle-based sensor and vision systems-to determine the best way to prepare the vehicle and its occupants during an unavoidable collision. "Getting as much information as we can about the environment and the potential severity and type of crash before it happens will allows us to better tailor the technologies that need to be deployed in the event of a crash," Cramer says.
By knowing where a vehicle is, what the road conditions ahead are, and the environment-which means making use of everything from navi to on-board camera systems to car-to-car communications-it should be possible to allow the vehicle to tailor the response of various safety systems to reduce injuries by customizing pre-crash brake pressure boost, airbag deployment level and seat belt tension limits. "If we can better understand the impending accident and its potential impacts, we can better respond to what's going to happen by automatically braking the car and moving the occupant into an optimum seat position in the vehicle to limit injuries," Cramer says.
The major obstacle standing in the way of making ContiGuard a reality is processing power. "The security level of the system requires a guaranteed high rate of information processing that's greater than we have today," Cramer says. While existing CAN networks can handle some of the complexity, full functionality will not be achieved until automakers adopt the FlexRay communications protocol as it can handle the complex algorithms that allow all of the systems to work together reliably. While some high-end automakers, including BMW and Mercedes, have already adopted FlexRay systems into their vehicle architectures, Cramer doesn't expect the technology to gain mass appeal for several more years.
An even more challenging obstacle is consumer acceptance and their willingness to pay for advanced safety systems. The 2008 J.D. Power and Associates automotive emerging technologies study revealed that while 76% of consumers are interested in having blind spot detection systems on their next vehicle, only 18% are willing to pay $500 for the feature. Likewise the interest in full collision mitigation systems peaked at 62%, which then fell to just 13% once study respondents were told they would have to pay up to $1,500 for the technology. "Both the OEMs and the suppliers are going to have to create interesting selling points around this technology. We may have to work with insurance companies to obtain discounts on premiums for some of these technologies, which will help with consumer acceptance," Cramer suggests, noting these obstacles are not insurmountable but will require a commitment from OEMs to lead when it comes to reducing vehicle deaths and injuries before regulators foist such technologies on them.
Government Joins the Safety Technology Revolution
It’s not too often you hear the words “government” and “innovation” in the same sentence, but the U.S. Department of Transportation is out to change that as it studies advanced safety technologies that can help the agency achieve its goal of reducing vehicle accidents by 90% by 2030. “We know that’s a big hairy audacious goal, but if we are able to achieve it between 2030 and 2040 we will be able to save hundreds of thousands of lives and over $2-trillion in economic costs that go to pay medical bills and insurance payouts,” says Paul Brubaker, administrator of the D.O.T.’s research and innovation technology administration.
The Department plans to leverage aftermarket, OEM and Tier One technologies, including satellite and peer-to-peer networks, to transmit traffic congestion, travel speed and other data directly to the vehicle to eliminate potential traffic accidents and alert driver’s to dangerous road conditions. “Network-centric driving will lead to a networked transportation solution for both passenger movements and how we manage our nation’s supply chain, which is important to our economic competitiveness. Our vision is to achieve these transformational benefits for the global driving public, with American ingenuity leading the way,” Brubaker says. The government is expected to take the first steps toward this nationwide connected vehicle network as part of the Department’s reauthorization bill, slated to reach Congress in spring 2009.