Collision Avoidance Systems: The Keys to Road Safety

With traffic fatalities rising at an alarming rate, collision avoidance systems are a promising solution.

cars without collision avoidance systemsPer the Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT), almost 1.3 million people die in road accidents each year with an additional 20-50 million injured. That averages 3,287 global fatalities a day, making auto accidents the 9th leading cause of death. The World Health Organization (WHO) broke that down even further in 2015. Within low and lower-middle income populations, road deaths came in at number 10, but within the upper-middle class it ranked 7 just below Alzheimer’s Disease, but above both Liver and Stomach Cancer.

Then on February 15, 2017, it was reported that traffic fatalities in the United States would reach over 40,000 for 2016. That is the highest level since 2007 and one that has safety experts, law enforcement and automakers alike scrambling for solutions. While distracted driving and speeding certainly contribute to this uptick, many feel the biggest issue is complacency with enforcing seat belt and cell phone usage laws. Per ASIRT, if something isn’t done to stem this trend, car accidents will rise to number five by 2030. The technology that enables connected cars and autonomous vehicles has long been touted as the answer to everything from traffic congestion to traffic fatalities. In the case of the latter, collision avoidance systems are arguably the key to drastically reducing these tragedies—if not completely abolishing them.

The evolution of vehicle safety

pre-collision avoidance systems carWhile it’s a priority of today’s automakers, vehicle safety met with a great deal of resistance when cars were first created. The innovative machines were originally made of wood, had no doors, windows or turn signals, and were stopped by the equivalent of a bicycle brake—leather pads that pressed against the tires when activated by hand levers. These drove on unpaved roads without stop signs or traffic lights. True, top speed was 10 mph (16 km/h), however, little consideration was given to the safety of the people in the car and pedestrians on the street alike.

Crashes, on the other hand, have been a part of automobile history since the beginning. The first gas-powered car collision was in 1891 when inventor James Lambert was driving his single-cylinder automobile with a friend, ran over a tree root, lost control and hit a hitching post. Both men walked away with only minor injuries. The first gas-powered traffic fatality occurred in England in 1896 when Mrs. Bridget Driscoll was crossing the street and saw a self-powered horseless carriage barrelling (4 mph) down upon her. The driver, Arthur Edsall, sounded his horn, yelled to her to, “Watch out!”, but she was frozen by the sight of the horseless Roger-Benz motor car and was struck. At the inquest, which ruled it “accidental death,” the coroner commented, “I trust that this sort of nonsense will never happen again.”

The impact of Unsafe at Any Speed

The earliest safety features in cars were shatterproof glass and four-wheel brakes in the late 1920s. By the ‘30s all car bodies were steel instead of wood and hydraulic brakes were introduced. However, it was the 3-point seat belt created by safety engineer, Nils Bohlin of Volvo in 1959, that truly revolutionized and advanced automotive safety. While the seat belt is seen as the single most effective protection in an accident, other than the introduction of more efficient braking systems, none of these innovations helped cars avoid or lessen an actual collision.

The belt, however, was not standard on every car and when Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile was published in 1965, there were over 47,000 fatal crashes reported in the United States alone. The book highlighted the lack of government involvement in the safety of motor vehicles and led to an almost immediate response. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) was created within ten months of its release to oversee the safety and standards of the transportation industry. Then, in 1970, the Highway Safety Act was signed and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was born. Since that time there have been significant strides in protecting both drivers and those who come in contact with the vehicles on the road.

The ins and outs of collision avoidance systems

visual for collision avoidance systems From pushing for better highways to support safer driving to producing autonomous cars as a way to alleviate a variety of vehicle related issues, focusing on ways to keep people safe while traveling on roads is a global initiative. Crash or collision avoidance systems are an integral part of this.

Collision avoidance systems consist of a bundling of sensors and tools that assist connected cars in getting the world to a true Vision Zero future. The different features that go into collision avoidance technology create an advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) to support a safer, more stable driving experience. These range from the familiar anti-lock braking system (ABS) to its more advanced automatic emergency braking (AEB) offspring and far beyond. The below are different features in ADAS and what they do.

Anti-lock Braking Systems (ABS), Electronic Stability Control (ESC) and Traction Control

One of the first technologies to assist in crash avoidance, anti-lock braking systems (ABS) were implemented in 1978. The ABS adjusts brake pressure to combat any locking of wheels that can cause a spinout and/or further damage to either vehicle. Electronic stability control (ESC) and traction control are two crash avoidance technologies directly linked to ABS. With ESC, when a car spins out, brakes are applied to different wheels and engine power is decreased to help stabilize the vehicle. Traction control works with the ABS wheel speed sensors to determine if engine power needs to decrease to allow one of the tires to regain traction in slippery conditions.

Forward Collision Warning

A key feature in crash avoidance, forward collision warning (FCW) uses sensors to determine how close an automobile is getting to either a vehicle or obstacle in front of it. If a crash seems imminent, the system alerts the driver—through sounds, lights or both—to react. FCW is a warning technology, not an automatic responder—it will not autonomously apply brakes or control the steering wheel to avoid a collision.

Automatic (or Autonomous) Emergency Braking (AEB)

This collision avoidance technology detects potential crashes and emergency situations the car is about to face then autonomously steps in to either avoid or lessen an impact should the driver not react in time. NHTSA strongly advocates AEB to lower fatalities and injuries on the road. Currently, it exists two ways: dynamic brake support (DBS) and crash imminent braking (CIB). DBS automatically augments how hard a driver presses on the brake pedal, and CIB slows or even stops the car to halt a collision or reduce its impact when a driver simply doesn’t react quickly enough. Either system will be standard on all U.S. models by 2022.

Lane Departure Warning (LDW)/Lane Departure Prevention (LDP)

Lane departure warning (LDW) systems use a variety of signals to alert you when your car is drifting too close to a lane so you can correct it. The alert may be a sound, vibrating seats or steering wheels, a visual cue with a light flashing and more. The system works through a mix of sensors and cameras that register lane markings and is triggered when the car gets too close to those lines or breaches them. This is different than lane departure prevention (LDP), which is autonomously proactive and will do such things as apply the brakes or connect with the steering wheel to gently turn your car to correct unintentional lane changing, which helps avoid a crash. LDW and LDP assume the potential lane change is accidental if the turn signal is not activated and will automatically shut off when you put on your blinker. As long as it’s on, the system remains dormant. The biggest goal with LDW and LDP is to lower the single car highway accident. Per AAA, these systems have the potential to do so by approximately 46% once they are installed on a broad scale.

Adaptive Headlights

Adaptive headlights have a self-leveling system that senses how a car is moving and reacts to the terrain and driving habit of the operator. The level sensor uses electric servomotors to adjust the intensity of the lights and their position to stay on the highway and maintain visibility around curves, over hills and when approaching road hazards. These are currently required on all new cars in Europe and all U.S. cars that have bi-xenon headlights.

Blind-Spot Detection

Blind spots cause a myriad of issues while driving, and mirrors and quick looks over the shoulder can only capture so much area. Blind-spot detection uses either sensors or cameras to project preventative information about the hardest areas to see around the car. In some models the driver can turn the system on or off. Some vehicles, like the more recent Infiniti M-Series, also offer steering resistance if the driver doesn’t heed the warning signal.

Note on rear-end collision avoidance

Rear-end collisions account for a vast majority of traffic accidents. Currently, there are no specific collision avoidance systems created to deal with this issue, but all of the components combined address all manner of vehicle incidents including rear-end collisions.

Situational Awareness

V2V connectingIn its most basic form, situational awareness is all about keeping alert to your surroundings at all times. It affects us everyday whether it’s walking down the street, moving through the halls at work or driving our car. Staying clued into what’s going on around you is the first step to collision avoidance. Technology has added an extra level of safety through the installation of sensors and cameras into connected cars to boost a driver’s situational awareness while operating his or her automobile. However, vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology keeps the automobile updated on things even LIDAR can’t see. With V2V, cars speak to each other, sharing information about proximity to other automobiles and road conditions. This enhances the vehicle’s situational awareness and is one of the innovations that makes the autonomous operation of these vehicles possible.

Pushing forward technology

In March of 2016, U.S. DOT, NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) announced that 20 automakers had committed to making automatic emergency braking  (AEB) standard on all new cars by September 1, 2022. These 20 make up 99 percent of the U.S. auto market. By getting the car manufacturers to agree to this, the technology will be available sooner than would be the case if the NHTSA put the makers through the normal regulatory process.

As part of that commitment, the following is agreed:

  • AEB will be standard on almost all light-duty cars and small trucks with a gross weight of 8,500 lbs. or less by September 1, 2022 and virtually every truck with a gross vehicle weight between 8,501 and 10,000 lbs. by September 1, 2025.
  • Automakers who have signed on will ensure the vehicles have both a forward collision warning system that “meets a subset of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s current 5-Star Safety Ratings program requirements on the timing of driver alerts and an automatic braking system that earns at least an advanced rating in the current Insurance Institute for Highway Safety front crash prevention track tests. The baseline performance measures are a speed reduction of at least 10 mph in either the IIHS 12 or 25 mph tests, or a speed reduction of 5 mph in both of the tests.”
  • IIHS and NHTSA will implement an annual monitoring and updating system on safety progress.

The IIHS and NHTSA believe employing these safety measures will prevent 28,000 crashes and 12,000 injuries per year.

Top 2017 vehicles with advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS)

collision avoidance alert on dashboardThe future of ADAS now lies within cracking the autonomous vehicle code. All of the technology going into these systems are part of the driverless toolkit and as self-driving cars evolve, so will collision avoidance systems. Automakers have already incorporated several safety features for their 2017 vehicles, which include the following:

  • forward-collision warning
  • auto braking city speed
  • auto braking highway speed
  • lane departure warning (LDW)
  • lane departure prevention (LDP)
  • blind-spot warning
  • rear-cross traffic
  • rearview camera

The following car models come with all of these collision avoidance systems features as standard:

  • Acura RLX year 2016/2017
  • Cadillac CTS V 2017
  • Genesis G80 2017
  • Genesis G90 2017
  • Honda Accord Hybrid 2017
    • This car offers Honda Lane Watch in the blind-spot warning category. This feature is a camera mounted in the outside passenger mirror that looks down the side of the car. It does not show the driver’s side at the moment and doesn’t alert you if a car is in the blind spots on either side.
  • Lexus LX 2017

Some models with noted safety capability:

  • The 2016/2017 Tesla S and X offer all features except rear-cross traffic.
  • Rear view cameras are standard on every Subaru model for 2016/2017 while all of the other safety features are offered as optional on all models except three.
  • All 2016/2017 Volvos offer the features in a combination of optional and standard.
  • Other than just a handful of models in the 2016, 2017 and 2016/2017 class, Toyota’s 2016/2017 fleet provide the safety systems either as optional or standard.

Things to consider

driver POV through rainy windshieldThe combination of these collision avoidance features creates a safer driving experience and automakers around the world are actively installing these systems in their vehicles to lower the instances of crashes. Drivers, however, need to understand that for all of the technology and innovation that is being implemented, they need to stay alert behind the wheel. Nothing completely stops a crash automatically and handing over the reins to your connected car entirely leads to dangerous consequences. As the autonomous car movement advances forward, so will the systems meant to avoid and lessen traffic fatalities and injury, but human intervention and addressing infrastructure will be necessary even when the steering wheel is a thing of the past.

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The Autonomous Vehicle: A Look Through History

the autonomous vehicle in action

The wave of the future

The autonomous vehicle, or self-driving car, has become the focus of the automotive world. More and more, you hear that the connected car is the answer to a variety of transportation ills. From Google to Volvo to Ford to Uber and Lyft, the industry of moving you from one place to another is working feverishly to make the once science fiction dream of a driverless vehicle a reality. However, this seemingly 21st century innovation has not only been in people’s minds for centuries, but attempts and working prototypes have been pursued across the ages.

What exactly is an autonomous vehicle?

The autonomous vehicle label has become quite the buzz. But what makes a regular, everyday car into a self-driving connected car? An autonomous vehicle is any car that drives itself through a set of computerized controls hardwired into the automobile’s brain or electronic control unit (ECU). The idea has been the stuff of dreams since as far back as the great Leonardo da Vinci with his horseless carriage idea, an invention meant as a novelty to surprise and delight attendants of festivals during renaissance times that would take centuries to figure out how to build.

While there have been several attempts throughout the years to make a self-driving, fully autonomous car come to life, success has been elusive. However, the interest has never wavered and the automotive world and general public became even more energized with a look into the future that sent minds reeling at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

General Motors and dreams of innovation

World's Fair map

Road map for 1939 New York World’s Fair

General Motors (GM) is no stranger to vehicle innovation. It was the first automaker to envision a type of autonomous technology with the presentation of a computerized navigation system for its cars known as Driver Aid, Information and Routing System (DAIR) back in 1966. The ambitious yet unwieldy invention would lead to the creation of OnStar in the 1980s. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that GM presented their idea of the self-driving car at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

The Futurama bird's eye view

The Futurama, GM’s vision

The tagline of the storied pre-World War II extravaganza was “The World of Tomorrow.” Hundreds of thousands of visitors flocked to the extraordinary promise of a unique and technologically advanced horizon shown throughout the fairgrounds. GM’s pavilion featured the most popular attraction called The Futurama, a ride that took visitors through what life would be like in the year 1960. While the exhibit was more about urban planning and creating a highway system—which wouldn’t become reality until 1956—tiny radio controlled cars that automatically kept their distance from each other were presented on the roads, a precursor to adaptive cruise control and autonomous vehicle technology. This future vision was crafted by mercurial theatre and industrial designer, Norman Bel Geddes. While 1960 has come and gone and the glorious, smooth driving fully autonomous future has yet to be realized, the commitment to and belief in a driverless world is stronger and more pervasive than ever.

Why self-driving car technology matters?

Driving a car is essential to many people’s lives. Getting behind the wheel of an automobile and transporting yourself, others and supplies or equipment for work, play or charity, have led to the continued—albeit sometimes shaky—growth of what is now a $9 trillion+ automotive industry. The automobile has been in consumer use since Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler created their vehicle empire in 1895 then made even more accessible when Henry Ford turned what was basically a luxury item into something the masses could afford. These horseless carriages have dominated the transportation industry ever since and incorporating autonomous technology to create self-driving cars has been a goal that may well have been prompted by Leonardo’s self-propelled carriage over five centuries ago.

The “Linrrican Wonder,” a 1926 Chandler rigged with a transmitting antenna, became the first documented case of a “driverless car” that same year. It “drove” through the streets of New York City while controlled by a follow vehicle. Having a tracking car may seem to negate the fully autonomous goal of a driverless vehicle, but the Linrrican Wonder maneuvered on a public road in the most populous city in America even back then, giving hope to the automotive industry of a future it continues to fervently pursue to this day.

Huge strides continue to be made in the world of self-driving cars which are propelled by 3 major issues on the road today: traffic congestion, road fatalities and environmental impact. But will driverless cars really alleviate all of these problems?

Alleviating gridlock

autonomous vehicles to help with gridlock

Photo By Hikosaemon via Wikimedia Commons

There’s a two-pronged effect here with autonomous vehicles. Shared self-driving cars lead to less automobiles on the road. Also, operator error causes the bulk of traffic accidents which then leads to even more traffic congestion—slowing down to rubberneck, lane closures, etc. Autonomous vehicle technology incorporates such systems as collision avoidance and adaptive cruise control to create both safer conditions and smart distance between cars.  These two together allow the vehicles to keep pace with and from each other in ways that keep the flow of traffic consistently moving.

Staying alive on the road

autonomous vehicles to address safe driving

2015 saw 35,200 car-related deaths in the U.S. alone. This staggering number has prompted the Department of Transportation (DOT) to push for policies that more actively regulate self-driving car research and development. Human error accounts for 94% of all fatalities on the highway and implementing innovative vehicle technology in the form of fully autonomous smart cars is felt to be the answer. Again, collision avoidance systems play an integral part in keeping passengers safe and lowering traffic fatalities and accidents in general.

Lower emissions and better fuel efficiency

autonomous vehicles programmed for better fuel efficiency

An autonomous car is designed to be more fuel efficient not only by the mere fact that many use alternative fuels, but the way they travel in conjunction with other vehicles and on the road in general. These vehicles are built to move in such a way that they make the best use of their fuel and brake/accelerate more strategically, thereby reducing whatever gas emissions they produce or drain on a power cell. Traditional and adaptive cruise control (ACC) acts as a strategic partner in supporting this by automatically maintaining an ecologically friendly rate of speed.

The ins and outs of self-driving car technology

What makes a self-driving car drive itself? It’s a combination of a variety of interfaces and connections. Per engineering professor, Sridhar Lakshmanam of University of Michigan—Dearborn, three things are needed to make an everyday vehicle successfully navigate a public road autonomously: a GPS, a system that reads road conditions, and a processor that takes all of that data and turns it into action.

how an autonomous vehicle works

The technology behind autonomous vehicles

The GPS needed is pretty much the same type of system used today. It provides a basic view of maps and where the car can go. Radar and lidar sensors are instrumental in the system that can see road conditions as are on-board cameras.

Radar uses radio waves to distinguish what is going on around the car while a lidar sensor uses lasers to detect the environment, obstacles and more by sending out a series of light pulses at specific intervals to pick up external information. These combine with the on-board cameras to take all of the information of what is going on around the vehicle—the environment and dynamic situations—and send it to the brain so the car can actually react—brake, accelerate, turn, etc.—accordingly.

On-board cameras also contribute to the successful operation of autonomous vehicles. These visually capture the conditions and potential hazards of the road in real time and process that information through sophisticated computer software. The car’s brain then takes that and

Part of this smart communication is vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) interaction. The ability for cars to speak with each other will help in making this driverless future a safe reality. Per the National highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) one automobile can relay various “important safety and mobility information” to another, thereby supporting the three goals mentioned above: alleviate gridlock, save lives and lower emissions. And with safe future comes changes to government.

The ups (and downs) of the autonomous vehicle

Due to the nature of less human interaction,  an autonomous vehicle means fewer parking and moving violations, which provide a good chunk of money into local and state agency coffers. However, the safety and strengthening of the transportation systems save government and taxpayers money and lives. The Brookings Institute breaks it down as follows:

  • An estimated $10 billion per year saved by taxpayers due to the public shouldering the bill for seven percent of vehicle crash costs
  • A savings of $100 billion per year due to the elimination of congestion, damages to infrastructure and resources spent on road improvement.
  • Cutting travel times by sending vehicles to better road options which saves on the cost of fixing roadways and bridges
  • An overall estimated savings of $211 billion a year to state, local and federal governments

With all of this possibility, however, it begs the question: just how ready is the public to hand over the controls they’ve come to know with their automobiles?

The steering wheel (gear shift, pedals…): to be or not to be?

will autonomous vehicles need what drivers are used to?

As mentioned, the motor car is the most influential mode of transportation in the world. It is a staple of modern life and a symbol of autonomy, even in its purest form. Part of that comes from the ability of everyday humans to have total control over their automobile by being able to steer it themselves and operate the different gears and pedals to make it run. But in a fully autonomous, self-driving car, is it really necessary to have all of those accouterment?

Per a recent Kelley Blue Book poll, most Americans couldn’t even begin to imagine embracing a fully autonomous vehicle—called a Level 5 by both NHTSA and Kelley Blue Book. 80 percent of those polled believe human drivers need to have the ability to operate their car and 64 percent claimed they need to be the ones driving their automobiles, not some technology. While there are ranges of feelings about actually using the self-driving capability—short jaunts were felt to need operator control while autonomous vehicle technology would be welcome on long road trips—the space for human intervention in the midst of unforeseen circumstances is still felt to be necessary.

Different levels of autonomy

As mentioned, both the NHTSA and Kelley Blue Book have identified 5 stages of autonomy for cars. Both adhere to the levels as outlined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International. They breakdown as follows:

Level 0: No Automation

The human driver has full control of the car, even if there are upgrades and technological advances in the vehicle. The person behind the wheel is the one who reacts to every situation.

Level 1: Driver Assistance

Most of the operation is handled by the driver. Some, however, like braking, can be automatically managed by the car through the data it retrieves from road conditions.

Level 2: Partial Automation

Again, the human controls most aspects of the vehicle, but some things like cruise control or lane correction are automatically handled by the vehicle as well as acceleration and deceleration based on the information gathered about the drive. The person behind the wheel, however, is expected to be the primary operator, managing the rest of the manipulation of the car as well as taking over from the automated functions should the situation arise.

Level 3: Conditional Automation

Pretty much every task a driver would perform is handled by an automated system. However, here there is the ability for the human to take control when their intervention is requested by the computer.

Level 4: High Automation

There are still a steering wheel, gas and brake pedal, and a gear shift in this level, but all of the driving is automated and there is a failsafe should the driver fail to engage when the system asks for their assistance.

Level 5: Full Automation

The car is completely automated and prepared to handle all road conditions and situations that can and will arise during the ride. The driver is turned into passenger and their assistance is not requested nor needed.

As you can see, these last three levels move from minimal mechanical driver assistance—a human operator maintains control while the car has certain enhancements to help make their drive smoother and safer— into an area where the vehicle is now actually monitoring the driving environment and reacting automatically. This is a future leap that is available in limited models for Level 3 and in test phase with fleet vehicles in levels 4 and 5 under controlled conditions on public roads —Google self-drive now known as Waymo and Uber, for example.

Paving the road to the future

The road to the future

The initial estimate of when driverless cars will truly be on the road is 2050. However, with Ford embracing the autonomous vehicle movement rather than fighting it, Baidu in California, and much more, “The World of Tomorrow” may be just around the corner. The progress to a more dynamic driverless future is constant, so keep your eyes on the road ahead.

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