This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report: Critical Challenges 2002: Technology Takes On
In the future, cars will help make the world's roads nearly accident free. Humans are fallible: we get sleepy while driving at night, do dumb things like put on makeup or shave while creeping along in bumper-to-bumper traffic, or look away from the road to adjust our car radios. But cars will soon make road travel safer by looking over drivers' shoulders, so to speak, keeping their attention from being pulled away from the road, and finding ways to reduce the hazard should a driver's focus stray.
To this end, researchers envision smart systems that give the driver "the right information, in the right way, at the right time," to quote Mike Gardner, director of Motorola Laboratories' Human Interface Lab, Phoenix, Ariz. At Motorola, Delphi Safety & Interior Systems, Troy, Mich., and DaimlerChrysler's Ulm Research Center in southern Germany, R&D programs are advancing toward a smart car capable of reducing the number of stimuli, some of them simultaneous, to which a driver must react, or taking over elements of the driving task such as braking or steering. These and other companies are developing adaptive cruise control (ACC) systems, which combine radar- or laser-based sensors that scan the road ahead with throttle and brake actuators, to maintain a safe, preset minimum distance between cars in the same lane [see "Keeping Cars from Crashing," IEEE Spectrum, September 2001, pp. 40-45].
Now in its early stages, the work will take shape over time, as innovations from around the world are combined into ever more refined subsystems with sensing and control capabilities. By the end of the decade, these subsystems will allow cars not only to periodically take over tasks from the driver but also to ensure that the driver is not overwhelmed by a deluge of information from the road and from electronic devices in the cabin [see illustration], let alone by sleep.
Motorola's, Delphi's, and DaimlerChrysler's wish lists for these smart cars are very similar in what they will sense and tell the driver. In order to perform tasks such as steering, maintaining following distance, or alerting the driver who is not paying close enough attention to the road, cars will need to know, physiologically speaking, what the driver is up to. Sensors in the passenger cabin will gather this data, monitoring, for example, his or her movements, eye-blink pattern, and respiration. This data will be combined with information from sensors measuring such behavior as the number and the severity of the steering corrections the driver uses to keep the car in its lane.
All this data will be screened for signs of a distracted or disabled driver by processors programmed with neural network algorithms. These will assess whether the driver is about to doze off or is preoccupied with tasks other than driving. Engineers even imagine cars some day attempting to rouse drowsy drivers by causing their seats to vibrate, lowering the windows to provide a gust of cool air, or simply telling them to pull off the road.
Systems designed to monitor many outside conditions are also being developed. ACC and forward-, rear-, and side-impact warning systems will work with other vehicle-based sensor systems that warn of wet, frozen, or snowy roads or improper tire pressure. Communications systems will monitor local weather broadcasts and will also alert the driver to upcoming hazards (say, an oil spill or a major collision) relayed from the roadside by digital short-range communications.
Data of this type will be fed into so-called workload management systems--control centers of systems designed to reduce driver distraction. Suppose data from a system tracking the driver's eye movements indicates that she is looking not at the road but at the center console, while data from the GPS mapping system reveals that she is attempting to chart a new route. At that point the workload management system might take over, telling the driver something like, "For safety reasons, navigation information will be presented as audible prompts," and shutting off the navigation system's display. Or someday a driver may have a mobile phone call abruptly disconnected should the car sense impending danger.
Two design philosophies
An important distinction between Motorola's system and those proposed by DaimlerChrysler and Delphi will be in their allocation of driving tasks. The latter two will decide which driving tasks should be performed by the driver and which should be delegated to the car, whereas Motorola engineers, fearing that the transfer of control between driver and vehicle may itself breed accidents, will limit its system to controlling the information the driver receives [see "Cars Won't Drive Themselves"].
Motorola's Driver Advocate System, said Gardner, ranks each type of information on the basis of its relative importance. Naturally, information critical to the driver's safety, such as a warning of an impending collision, is given highest priority. Lower-priority information, such as a stock quote made available through the car's Internet connection, is held in a queue if the car senses the driver is preoccupied. Theoretically, if the car senses it is rapidly accelerating, as when entering an expressway, Motorola's driver advocate may transfer an incoming cell phone call directly to voice mail, while flashing the position and relative speeds of nearby vehicles on, say, a head-up display. When the system senses an easing of the driver's information load, it could present the items in the queue, choosing the best distraction-free way to deliver them.
The Delphi System, like Motorola's, will also limit the number of stimuli to which the driver must respond, but will go further and, if need be, take over the driving task. If it senses that the driver is not alert, it will spring into action, first increasing the distance between cars maintained by the ACC. According to a 1992 study by Daimler-Benz, this alone could prevent nearly 90 percent of rear-end collisions.
The Delphi system will also, in a limited set of circumstances, override the driver's actions to correct for common errors like over- or understeering on turns or driving too fast when the road is wet. If the driver continues to depress the accelerator after repeated visual or audible warnings that, say, a vehicle is zooming in from a cross street, the safety system will take over, slowing the car down.