Driver assistance systems use a combination of warnings and some degree of active intervention to help steer the driver away from trouble.  Although the accent is on giving assistance to the driver rather than take control away, the extent of such intrusion is raising eyebrows.  Matthew Beecham considers some recent innovations and the issues they create.

Stay in lane

Although rumble strips can help alert drivers to an unintentional lane change, accidents still happen.  In the US alone, it is estimated that some 18.800 fatalities, equivalent to 44% of all fatal car crashes, are due to unintended lane departures.  Lane departure warning systems which use sensors can help prevent the driver from drifting into an adjacent lane.  Flashing lights on the dash, simulated rumble strip tones boomed out through the radio speakers, a vibrating steering wheel or seat all aim to alert the driver. More advanced systems can actually steer the vehicle back into lane.  Delphi, Valeo, Iteris, Hella, Bosch, Visteon, Continental Temic and TRW are all working independently with their OEM customers to develop lane departure concepts.

For its part, Delphi has developed a range of vision-based technologies for interior and exterior applications, including a lane departure warning system that tracks up to 25-metres ahead of the vehicle.  “The ability to identify all lane guidance lines and to work in many weather and lighting conditions has made this a substantial achievement,” said Dr Richard Lind, director of advanced engineering for Delphi Delco Electronics Systems.  “We have applied considerable resources to the development and calibration of algorithms to ensure that we have a reliable and robust system.”

Valeo has confirmed that its own lane departure warning system will debut on a high-line North American car sometime this year.  The system is the result of a two-year development programme with Iteris, which originally developed lane departure warning with DaimlerChrysler for the Mercedes Actros truck in 2000. 

Bosch continues to develop its ‘sensitive car’ concept using surround ‘sensorics’.  Bosch engineers reckon that the combination of ultrasonic, radar and video sensors all add up to extra benefits for the driver such as improved night vision, support for lane retention and automatic stop and go systems.  Bosch says that the first products based on video sensorics will go on sale in 2005.  Bosch currently employs 300 R&D engineers working on driver assistance, up from 100 engineers in 2001.  “That is an indication of the push in growth we are expecting,” said Bernd Bohr, head of Bosch’s automotive business.

Hella is also working on lane recognition systems.  A video camera mounted in the rear-view mirror allows the electronics to track lane markings on the road ahead.  The German lighting and electronics specialist says its lane recognition system will be used in series production from 2006.   It is likely to appear first in Europe, with US applications expected to follow.  The company is also examining the integration of its lane departure warning system with its existing Adaptive Cruise Control. ACC systems brake, accelerate and maintain speed by monitoring the distance between the driver’s vehicle and the vehicle ahead. Next generation ACC will include stop-go function for traffic.  A few years further down the line, the combination of long and short-range radar with video will enable lane-keeping functions.

All together now

Although rear-end accidents account for 5% of all fatal car crashes, statistics actually show that US drivers are now three-times less likely to be killed in traffic accidents than in 1969.  But the gains are slowing down, suggesting that the limits of occupant protection have been reached and new technology is now needed. While basic collision avoidance systems are already on the market, few are integrated with other driver assistance systems. “We have ACC and lane departure warning systems but they don’t yet talk to each other,” said Winfried Menge, Hella’s head of marketing, automotive electronics.  Menge believes the ACC’s sensors could provide extra information to the lane departure warning system about any vehicle in front, thus improving the accuracy of warning about unintentional lane departures.  This enhanced system is expected to reach production by 2007/8. 

Look Ma, no hands

All these technologies are at various stages of development but their adoption will depend on acceptance by both consumers and governments.  Motorists are still naturally sceptical about cars that supposedly drive themselves.  While active intervention clearly holds many possibilities, it is also fraught with difficulty.  Can and should we rely on these systems?  Who would be liable if the technology failed? The driver or the OEM?  How far away are we from driving a car that, say, when a collision looks inevitable and the driver fails to respond, then some clever computer wizardry kicks in, delivering a smooth, mathematically precise swerve around an obstacle in the road and then returns to its lane — all without the driver’s hands touching the wheel? 

Or is this simply asking for trouble, tempting the driver to ‘switch off’ in dangerous situations? Product liability claims would surely hit the roof if it could be proved that the car’s manufacturer in some way caused a crash or increased its severity.  It was this potential threat that put the dampers on the computer-guidance experiment in San Diego, where lines of cars were electrically linked together and steered automatically using a line of magnetic spikes on the road. 

Are we creating incapacitated drivers?  According the Vienna convention, the driver is in charge of controlling the vehicle, even though assistance systems might react better than the driver.  Bosch supports this opinion, stating: “The driver will remain the master of his vehicle and experience individual driving fun — while assistance systems help him drive safely.” 

Nick Ford, TRW’s product planning manager, advanced (electronics) control systems, said, “We have a very clear vision of how our active safety systems can work in conjunction with radar, infrared and vision sensing systems to support the driving process for enhanced comfort and safety. We’re not talking about removing the responsibility of the driver, but rather about providing driver support and feedback to remove the stress caused by today’s driving conditions.  We’re developing a number of new sensor and data fusion technologies that will make our vision a reality.”  Already TRW has four contracts with the Volkswagen Group to supply its current radar-based ACC system. Developed by Autocruise, originally a joint venture between TRW Automotive and the Thales Group and now under the control of TRW, the first generation ACC debuted on the 2002 Phaeton, and selected as an option by 20% of customers. 

Although we’re unlikely to see ‘crash proof cars’ this decade, there is no doubt that such computer-aided wizardry and decision-making software is making us safer and better drivers.  

Expert Analysis

Collision avoidance systems – forecasts to 2010

In this report, we explore driver assistance technologies, summing up the main issues and market trends in collision-warning – mitigation and -avoidance systems. What are these technologies? When will they be phased in? What is the market potential for these technologies? Can and should we rely on these systems? Who is leading the effort? What challenges do they face? Does a crash proof car really exist?

This report answers the above questions, and explores driver assistance technologies, summing up the main issues and market trends in collision-warning, mitigation and avoidance systems. We also set out our forecasts for specific technologies, namely adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning systems in Europe.

To find out more about this report, download your sample or to order your copy, please follow this link