Gearheads and Smart Vehicles

There's been a recent rash of home invasions here in New Hampshire and in our neighbor state to the south too. Not only houses but public buildings. Armed intruders? Yeah, a few, but mostly it's been vehicles. You got it—drivers going 30 or 40 mph into someone's parlor or a fast-food spot. In Santa Fe, someone plowed into a medical clinic, killed three, and hurt eight others. Up here, the results have been for the most part structural damage and late-night wake-up calls. To champion a way, or ways, that sensors could prevent many of these mishaps, you need to think a bit about the philosophies and the realities of conducting an automobile.

The Philosophies of Driving
Some of us, and I am one, enjoy the sensation of knowing and controlling our vehicles. I want to be in touch with everything my car is doing, how it's feeling about itself, and details about the road over which we're rolling. At the same time I like the few sensors my (pretty minimal) elderly Loyale has. One, for instance, automatically adjusts my fuel/air ratio for extreme changes in altitude. (Remember having to get out to retune your carb?) And I will cheerfully accept more smart devices in my next vehicle. Still, I would be happy on some isolated proving grounds, just a high-performance set of wheels and me. But not zipping endlessly around a track and dodging everyone else. I can go to Boston, about 90 minutes from here, and get the same experience. And have.

The Realities of Driving
But not everyone is such a quasi-gearhead. There are many who drive only when they have to because that's their only way to get around (not much public transportation available locally). They are to some extent afraid of their cars. And there are the young and inexperienced. The distracted. And the elderly, whose reflexes have slowed their physical reaction times but not their vehicles. And, of course, the purely reckless. Until someone from one of these subsets of operators tangles with a structure or a utility pole or, as has happened, a group of people on a sidewalk, that person is officially fit to drive.

The Sensors of Driving
So now it comes down to this: Should sensor-controlled braking, or at least deceleration systems become mandatory in passenger vehicles, including SUVs and pickup trucks? As I said earlier, I want to be in complete charge of whatever I'm driving. But I must bow to the greater good and say Yes. Hey, I might grow old (that's my current plan) and I might need a little help.

In my tirade about tailgaters earlier this month, I neglected to suggest that forward-looking object-detection could have at least reduced the number of vehicles that joined that metallic marmalade. The road surface was not the problem; visibility was. (Have you ever noticed that when you can't see very well you squint and lean forward even though that doesn't help at all?)

The April issue of Sensors will carry two stories about smart braking systems. One's a feature describing that and a few other new automotive advances from Continental. The other's in the R&D department. (It bears noting that we will distribute our April issue at the annual SAE show in Detroit, April 3–7.)

There's Even More
In addition to what you'll read next month, a new safety feature from Nissan puts a radar-based object detector into the front bumper. Combined with a sensor that monitors your car's speed and the distance to the vehicle ahead, the system automatically raises the accelerator pedal to tell you to lay off the gas. Snooze, and the brakes go on automatically. Gearhead or not, you could have had a surprise medical event that argues for letting your car take charge. Beats plunging into someone's parlor.

But what, you ask, about going into your own garage? Easy to answer. You generally open the door first. And if you're doing 30 mph, chances are you're going to drive not into it but through it.

Why Learn to Park?
(If you're still with me.) Toyota is introducing built-in valet parking. Yep, that vehicle feeds data from a steering sensor and a rear-facing camera into an onboard microprocessor and slides your ride into the spot of your choice (assuming realistic dimensions). You don't have to touch the wheel! This will give you a couple of minutes to finish up the shave you began on the freeway or to give your hair a few corrective tweaks. What a world!