1/1/2001 | 8 MINUTE READ

Sensing a Safer Future

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Ford is undertaking efforts to improve the safety of the vehicles it produces—not only for drivers and passengers, but even for pedestrians. Although much of the work described here is still in the development phases and will undoubtedly undergo change before it makes it to production vehicles, one thing is certain: the amount of electronics in a vehicle will undoubtedly increase...


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An approach that Ford Motor Co. is taking in terms of vehicle development is "Cleaner, Safer, Sooner," by which it means that company engineers are working to roll out cars with the first two characteristics ASAP. As Helen Petrauskas, vice president, Environmental and Safety Engineering, Ford, puts it, the initiative is about "using the vast resources of Ford Motor Company around the globe, including supplier relationships, to develop breakthrough technologies and then to apply those technologies as soon as feasible across our brands and to high-volume vehicles like a Ford Taurus, a Mercury Mountaineer or a Ford Mondeo in Europe. It's also about developing fuel cell and hybrid vehicles.

"And it's about taking those actions for our customers, over and above what regulations demand."

So on the one hand they are looking to the future. But on the other hand, that future isn't so far away in some cases; it is almost at arm's length.

An evident fact in many of the conceptual developments that the automaker has developed is that as new cars are brought out, the quantity and importance of electronics will be such that they will almost become as fundamental to an automobile as a steering wheel and tires.

The following vehicles are test beds. Their technology could undoubtedly be transferred to other vehicle types. Or maybe their technology will be eclipsed by something else. Either way, change will undoubtedly occur.

Getting Help-Stat.
It's dark. A car goes off the road. Into a ditch. The driver is injured. But it is dark. And the other cars on the highway keep zooming by. How is that person to be found?

According to Srini Sundarajan, supervisor—Safety, Research & Development, Ford Motor, the answer to that question is, sometimes, iffy. It is possible that said driver may not be found. . .until it is too late.


locked in trunk
In the event that someone is accidentally locked in a trunk, the SecureCar is instrumented so that (a) build up of carbon dioxide can be measured and/or (b) the heartbeat of the individual is detected. This initiates an alarm or can cause the trunk release to be activated.

That's just one scenario that the RescueCar is being developed to address with a happier ending. The facts that in the U.S. there are 40,000 lives lost in highway accidents and five million injuries per annum are also behind this development. The faster medical help can get to people, the better off those people will be. People who are treated by medical personnel immediately after an accident are better off not only in terms of healing, but with regard to living. When it comes to response, speed heals.

So the RescueCar, based on a Ford Taurus, is fitted with what is being called Ford's "Personal Safety System." This safety system is in many ways analogous to the crash sensors that are used in CART race cars: there are sensors that measure crash energy (g-forces) and direction (front, rear, side). There is also a small digital camera (CMOS camera) mounted by the rear-view mirror that takes a photo before (an image is taken every 15 seconds, overwriting the last one) and after an accident. This provides an indication of not only who is in the car, but what positions and conditions they are in after the event.

When an accident occurs, there is a signal sent to a Rescue Center. An on-board global positioning system provides vehicle location. The Rescue Center attendant, working with a standard PC, not only obtains sensor information (in addition to the data collected by the tri-axial accelerometer, information about seatbelts and airbag deployment are sent) but is in audio connection with the vehicle. Based on the information obtained, EMS personnel dispatched to the scene are better equipped to handle the situation (e.g., there are a sufficient number of people arriving to deal with the number of people who are involved in the accident).

Sundarajan says that one of the big issues related to the feasibility of the RescueCar is the infrastructure for the Rescue Center. Given the proliferation of sensors and microprocessors on vehicles, the technical aspect of the vehicle is undoubtedly not as vexing as simply creating the system to deal with the information that the Personal Safety System provides.

Can You Feel My Heart Beat?
What does the SecureCar have in common with earthquakes? Sam Ebenstein, staff technical specialist at Ford, answers that the relation between the two has to do with highly accurate sensors, geophone sensors. In the case of earthquakes, the sensors are used to detect the onset of temblors. In the case of the SecureCar, which is based, in this case, on a Volvo S80, the geophones are used to detect heartbeats. But the geophones have been miniaturized so that they are microaccelerometers.

This is one of the cases of technology transfer from a national lab, Oak Ridge National Lab. Apparently, the technology was developed so that security guards at nuclear power plants would attach two geophones to cars entering or leaving facilities. The geophones would be able to measure the sounds of the vehicle and to actually detect heartbeats (so if there was someone hiding in the car, they'd be discovered).

The SecureCar does have the possibility of detecting bad guys who may be hiding in a car. But another function is less James Bond: it is used to detect whether, say, an infant or a pet has been accidentally left in a parked car. The driver is alerted by the key fob. Ebenstein says that the heartbeat signature is sufficiently distinct so that other causes of vibration are screened out.

In addition to which, there can be the possibility of someone locking him- or her-self into the trunk of a car. Although automakers are installing quick-release devices on the insides of trunks for such unexpected circumstances, the SecureCar goes far beyond that: it is equipped with a CO2 sensor. As you may recall from biology class, you inhale air and exhale carbon dioxide. If you are breathing in a trunk (whether you are conscious or not), there will be a build up of CO2. The sensor will permit the trunk to be automatically opened, thereby providing access to air, or sounds an alarm.

And taking the quick-release mechanism up a level is an illuminated touch-pad sensor that would open the trunk only if it is touched by an animate object (i.e., a bag of groceries in the truck bumping into it wouldn't cause the lid to spring open).

See More.
The CamCar demonstration vehicle isn't even a car. It's a Lincoln Navigator. If you've ever driven a Navigator you know that while it puts you high up and provides good visibility above practically anything other than a Class A truck, there are certain blind spots. What's more, doing things like backing up at night can be trying, with the privacy glass used in the backlight not making it any easier. And regardless of the vehicle size or type, making a left-hand turn at a busy intersection when drivers on the opposite side of the road are doing the same can be annoying.

So, as Gary Strumolo, senior staff specialist, points out, the judicious placement of pencil-sized cameras can make a big difference. For example, the current side-view mirror provides a 22°º field of view. Through the use of the side-mounted cameras, this is increased to 45°º. Employing forward-facing cameras on the side mirrors there is what they're calling "Traffic View." This facilitates seeing what may be beside the opposite-turning vehicles when making a left turn. Using an array of four cameras mounted on the rear of the vehicle there is a 160°º field of view; these cameras provide sweep and zoom capability. This certainly aids backing up, as does the NightEye camera, which operates in low-light (0.004 lux) conditions; it is activated when the vehicle is placed in reverse.

The output of these cameras is displayed on three video screens mounted in the instrument cluster. Strumolo admits that not only must they do more work on making the cameras more rugged, but also they must do "lots more human factor studies; we don't want information overload."

Safer Streets.
Although there is certainly a lot of emphasis on producing cars with all manner of sensors and airbags to protect the occupants of vehicles, the SensorCar goes far beyond the notion of occupant safety. The SensorCar, based on a Mazda626, is a result of on-going work at Mazda's Technical Center in Hiroshima.

Apparently, a significant number of fatal traffic accidents in Japan are the result of pedestrians crossing in front of vehicles. At night. So, in order to reduce the possibility of such fatalities, the SensorCar makes use of a laser radar unit that is mounted on the grille of the vehicle. Although some adaptive cruise control systems that have been developed make use of a similar approach, for the SensorCar the purpose is not to determine the distance between the front of one's car and the rear of another and to thereby modify the speed, but to discover any wayward pedestrian who may step out into traffic in front of one's car.


Although in this scene the pedestrians are fairly evident, at night things aren't necessarily so clear. The SensorCar makes use of laser radar that can detect hard-to-see people and alert the driver that there could be an accident.

Upon detection, the driver is alerted by both a warning light on the instrument panel and a beeping sound through the front speakers of the audio system. The pedestrian is alerted by the car's horn.

And they have been doing research work going far beyond this warning capability. Ford engineers have rigged up a Ford Explorer with what is called a "wide over-the-hood airbag." Yes, it is precisely what it sounds like. This airbag is deployed from just above the front bumper when a frontal collision is imminent. Its configuration helps absorb some impact in order to reduce injury to a pedestrian who is hit. It also offers some protection to occupants of other vehicles in the case of a broadside collision.

The SensorCar isn't just about other people. Because some 80% of rear collisions result in neck injuries for vehicle occupants, the Mazda engineers working on the project have installed sensors in the rear bumper of the 626. The input from these sensors is processed by a computer that determines whether the SensorCar is about to be hit from behind. If so, then the system automatically activates motorized seatbelt pretensioners, moves the headrests forward, sounds a warning through the (where else?) rear audio speakers, and illuminates an icon on the instrument panel.