Wreckless Driving

Check out the futuristic vehicles you’ll soon be driving: cars that don’t crash.

Are you counting the years, months, or even days until you finally take control of a car? Sorry to tell you this, but you might never get that chance. Control is being taken out of drivers’ hands and transferred to cars instead.

Automakers are designing cars that they hope will make drivers less accident-prone. Such smart cars will come loaded with the latest in what design engineers call “accident-avoidance technology,” that will have more computing capacity than the first spaceships had.

How will smart cars work? Put yourself in the driver’s seat:

FENDER-BENDER ENDER

You’re tooling down the parkway when some jerk suddenly cuts in front of you. At that point, your Adaptive Cruise Control, developed by Delphi Automotive Systems, kicks in. Radar in the car’s front grill has been measuring the distance between your car and the other vehicles on the road by sending out radio or light waves that are reflected by the surrounding traffic.

Sensing that the car that just cut you off is dangerously close, your car’s cruise control system wires a message to the brakes that says, “Widen the gap!” Even if your foot is pressing on the accelerator (gas pedal), the car automatically slows down until there’s a safe distance between you and the other car.

SPIN DOCTOR

Zooming over the blacktop one winter’s day, your car hits a patch of ice and starts to spill. That’s when Delphi’s Traxxar stability system takes over to give the car more grip and less slip. The Traxxar system compares the car’s intended direction with the path the car is actually taking.

Intended direction is determined partly by a sensor that measures the turning rate of the steering wheel. Actual path is determined by sensors that monitor how hard the car is cornering, plus wheel speed and position. Traxxar then applies selective braking to one or more of the wheels to put the car back on track.

NIGHT SIGHT

You’re motoring down a country road one night–a time when more than half of all fatal car crashes happen. Several hundred meters ahead, a deer is about to cross the road. You can’t see the deer yet, but your car can. It’s equipped with Night Vision, a thermal-imaging system adapted by defense contractor Raytheon Company from a military device that detects enemy targets in the dark.

A camera mounted behind the car’s front grill senses the infrared (heat) energy given off by the deer. Night Vision translates that information into a bright white video image of the deer that is projected onto the lower part of your windshield to warn you that the deer is near.

ALARMING INVENTIONS

Late one evening, you doze off behind the wheel. Your car drifts toward a ditch. A sleep monitor, programmed to detect dangerous, jerky steering and careless swerving, senses that the car is cruising for a bruising. A loud alarm jolts you awake in time for you to regain control.

Alarms also sound whenever sensors in your car’s rear bumper detect that the car is backing into another object. The sensors, developed by Delphi, produce ultrasonic (high-frequency) sound waves that trigger an alarm whenever they bounce off objects closer than 6 meters (20 feet) to the rear of the car. The closer the car backs toward the object, the louder and faster the alarm sounds.

Still more alarms go off whenever sensors embedded in the car’s side view mirrors detect a car in your blind spot. The blind spot is an area that rear view mirrors miss. Alarms–and flashing lights–let you know that the car in your blind spot makes lane-hopping a hazard.

DAMAGE CONTROL

Alas, even the smartest smart cars won’t be geniuses. Some accidents will inevitably happen. In those events, sensing technology will “know” from the pitch (slope) of the car that it’s about to roll. In an instant, “side curtain” air bags will inflate so that the passengers aren’t thrown out of the vehicle. Infrared and ultrasonic sensors will scan the weight, size, posture, seat position, and seat belt use of each car occupant, then tighten belts and release head and body air bags. Outside air bags on the roof and the bumpers will also inflate, cushioning the impact of the crash.

At that point, the car will use telematics, a combination of cellular and satellite communications, to broadcast details of the crash. It will signal for an ambulance and transmit a video of the car’s interior to prepare the paramedics. Even after a collision, the car will still be in control.

MINDSTRETCH

How might smart cars worsen people’s driving skills and habits, making the highways more dangerous? How might that be prevented?

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