Imagine a car that adapts to your style of driving, habits and even musical tastes — and helps save you from having accidents.

As visions for better motoring go, it’s hard to top Toyota’s dream of a world with none of the bad things that come from cars — pollution and congestion — but lots of the good things, like excitement, comfort and, as the company’s head of R&D Kazuo Okamoto, recently told journalists, ‘zero traffic accidents’.

Such a goal may sound preposterous, but engineers need dreams. And Toyota is under no illusion that it might reach its goal any time soon. Nor does it think that technology alone will do the job; safer mobility demands safer cars, safer driving and better roads. As Okamoto explained, the company’s Today for Tomorrow slogan can be understood in the simple notion that taking action now is the only way to have a chance of realising any grand vision.

Okamoto was introducing a system, new to the Japanese market, based on millimetre-wave radar similar to that used in advanced cruise control systems. It also monitors steering movements to detect obstacles and warn the driver of an imminent collision. If a collision is inevitable, it can pre-arm the brake-assist system, pre-tighten seat belts and even apply the brakes. Impressive, but it soon became clear to anyone who took part in the demonstration that there is a long engineering road to travel before new vehicle technology like this makes the roads dramatically safer. This ‘Pre-Cash Safety’ system did help slow the car down before it hit an orange traffic cone on a test track, but it only worked when the cone was fitted with a radar reflector.

Elsewhere, across the industry, carmakers and component suppliers are working on a range of driver-assist systems. Frontal collision and safe following distance warning, lane-keeping assistance and blind spot detection are now or will soon be available, joining night vision enhancement and increasingly sophisticated vehicle control and brake-assist systems.

Further in the future are car-to-car communication schemes that would alert drivers to hazards ranging from a slippery corner to another car changing lanes or turning, and even systems designed to monitor the driver’s state of alertness. But while all these may play a role in reducing the frequency and severity of accidents they also threaten to overload drivers with information. Two or more of these systems could conceivably be competing for a driver’s attention. And it isn’t just safety devices that are becoming dangerous distractions. Satellite navigation systems are already commonplace, in-car entertainment is more elaborate than ever, e-mail and internet access has reached the car, and mobile telephones are ubiquitous — and deemed dangerous enough to have had their use banned in the UK for drivers without hands-free receivers.

As part of its push to halve the EU’s 45,000 annual road deaths by 2010, Brussels is sponsoring a bold attempt to manage this barrage of information. The Adaptive Integrated Driver-Vehicle InterfacE (AIDE) programme brings together carmakers, suppliers, safety researchers and communications experts to devise ways to prioritise information and present it clearly to drivers so they are helped, rather than distracted or confused.

AIDE’s vision is bewildering. Imagine a portable electronic device that combines all the functions you need — phone, electronic organiser, wireless internet access, music and video player, navigation, and so on. Take it into the car, any car, and its functions automatically become accessible from a dashboard interface that knows all your favourite settings. It automatically plays your favourite music, and sets all the safety systems to your driving style. When you get an e-mail, it asks you if want it read out now or later. Or if information gathered from on-board sensors combined with a satellite-based positioning system suggest a demanding driving situation, it keeps quiet so you can concentrate.

If the road ahead is blocked, the system plans an alternate route — but it waits until you’ve stopped at a traffic light to suggest the change. Should on-board systems detect an impending collision you naturally get a warning to brake; if dashboard-mounted cameras measuring eye movement deem you to be distracted or inattentive, you get a stronger warning.

AIDE’s picture of the future may sound as far-fetched as Toyota’s accident-free motoring, but there is good reason to pursue such a dream. In addition to those 45,000 killed every year on Europe’s roads, 1.5 million are injured. In the UK alone some 240,000 accidents a year kill more than 3,500 people — nearly 10 a day — and seriously injure 40,000.

The AIDE approach is important, because most accidents are caused by human error. Also, passive safety systems such as seat belts and air bags have already delivered their big contributions to safety. Further improvement from them will be marginal. According to the AIDE project co-ordinator, Jan Arfwidsson of the Volvo Technology Corporation’stransport and telematics services department, integrating safety and communications systems can help us safely accommodate the inevitable growth in the number of distractions, or at least accommodate them without going backwards in terms of road safety. ‘Our main task is to see how we can accept those functions without affecting safety,’ he said.

The potential benefits are best understood by recognising that AIDE is only tangentially about cars. The heart of the concept is the so-called nomadic device: mobile phone, electronic organiser, navigation device, music player or personal digital assistant that combines functions. Mike Gardner is the director of Intelligent Systems Research at Motorolalaboratories in Arizona, and a key player in both the AIDE project and its US counterpart. He likes to talk about ‘seamless mobility’ as an objective. People want to stay connected for information and entertainment wherever they are, including or especially in their cars, and they are relying on nomadic devices to do it. Hence the key to achieving seamless mobility without compromising road safety is to design these devices to operate in a ‘symbiotic relationship’ with cars, he said.

Several hurdles must be overcome. First, Gardner notes that a mobile phone has a very poor human interface for in-car use: the screen, button and sound are small. The same is true for any portable device. But with a universal plug-and-play compatibility between such devices and cars, this interface could be automatically shifted to a properly designed in-car display and controls.

Gardner has already demonstrated what he calls a ‘polite’ or ‘context-aware’ phone. When entering a car, the polite phone automatically switches an ongoing call to the car’s speaker phone. It also screens calls, accepting those numbers listed in a driving-only phone book and diverting others to voice mail. If airbags are deployed, it automatically calls a pre-selected number, such as emergency services. All this is achieved without removing the phone from pocket or bag.

Remarkably, the system is also simple, consisting of a specially prepared mobile phone that communicates by Bluetooth with an inexpensive aftermarket device that plugs into the onboard diagnostics (OBD2) port that is standard on most cars today. Steering movements can be monitored through the OBD2 port, so the polite phone even knows when driving conditions are challenging, and screens calls.

To go beyond the polite phone concept and achieve AIDE’s real objective, which Gardner summed up as the ‘safe and efficient integration of the driving environment’, poses further problems. Information from driver assistance systems, in-vehicle information or entertainment systems and nomadic devices will have to be prioritised, and then presented through a well-designed human-machine interface. Gardner notes that in many cars the navigation screen is becoming a de facto interface because it often doubles as a music system display. But there remains the ordinary instrument panel and all the dashboard buttons and switches, and these have got to be better integrated.

He conceded that there is a lot of work to be done to achieve real integration. But halfway through the AIDE project’s four-year development phase he is confident it will succeed in setting out technical standards for an electronic ‘gateway’ that will automatically connect nomadic devices to in-vehicle controls and displays.

From that point, Gardner believes nomadic devices will drive the adoption of AIDE functions because they have a much shorter lifecycle than a car. That is, as long as the car has a basic AIDE electronic architecture on-board people can add functions whenever they replace their phone, organiser or aftermarket navigation set. By contrast, AIDE would not be popular with carmakers or consumers if they were tied to a particular mobile phone for the lifetime of their car.

AIDE will be given a public demonstration in October when the Intelligent Transportation Systems World Congress convenes in London. Consortium members are preparing a Volvo van to demonstrate seamless mobility in telephony, music and some fleet productivity functions. While AIDE looks to be technically possible, it won’t get anywhere unless it is commercially viable. Andrew Lee, an automotive and transportation industry analyst at the London consultants Frost & Sullivan has studied the market for in-car telematics. For cost reasons, he said, commercial vehicle operators have been slow to adopt some ‘very impressive’ telematics services that could improve productivity.

AIDE functions are likely to go the same way unless safety improvements are great enough to get insurance companies to lower users’ premiums. He also doubts that carmakers will spend the time and money needed to integrate a lot of communications functions. He added that there are so many personal and regional preferences that it might never be feasible for carmakers to do more than install an AIDE-standard communications portal.

But, said Lee, there could well be a vibrant aftermarket for subscription services that would integrate a Blackberry-type personal organiser and communications device with in-car functions like navigation. Business users who are already paying a subscription to Blackberry or another telephone/digital assistant service may welcome an enhanced service that keeps them in contact with their office and clients while on the move. Lee said that carmakers could also get in on the act by packaging a service bought from communications and entertainment suppliers and then selling it to their customers, who may already be paying what amounts to a monthly subscription when they lease a car or buy it on finance. Users could choose to add functions over time.

Another member of the AIDE team is Prof Oliver Carsten, director of the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds and a professor of transport safety. He said it’s very difficult to predict how many lives could be saved, but is confident the new generation of safety technologies could work together better than they could work separately.

A key issue to him is the ‘A’ (for adaptive) in AIDE. If, say, a forward collision warning system can only respond to events in one standard way it may fail many, if not most, drivers. An aggressive driver might see standard warnings about following distance or speed as nagging and try to override the system. A timid driver with slower reaction times might need more warning of a possible collision. The AIDE concept of fully integrated safety systems should allow them to adjust their behaviour to best suit a driver’s needs. And, said Carsten, with driving style (as indicated by braking and steering behaviour) recorded on a nomadic device, a driver would get the same performance in any car.

Fleet drivers or those who frequently rent cars would benefit, and the nomadic device could be as simple as a smart ignition card. An adaptive system could also adjust itself to road conditions, and even give drivers enough feedback to change their driving habits. Today’s AIDE work could lead to more sophisticated adaptive systems that in effect customise a car to any driver. People with hearing or visual impairments might be able to remain independently mobile if the safety and communications system interface in a car could automatically adapt to their needs. As people age, for example, their night vision and colour perception change; an adaptive collision warning system might be able to compensate for such changes.

Systems as sophisticated as this are a long way off. Mike Gardner said Motorola is researching adaptation outside the AIDE context, but most carmakers questioned about the subject haven’t given it any real thought. At Toyota, however, questions about a future generation of safety systems designed to enhance the driver, rather than the car, got an intriguing response. According to Toyota Europe technology spokesman Colin Hensley, long-term researchers in Japan were pleased and surprised to have someone outside the company show any interest in what they were doing — but they couldn’t possibly say anything about it.