Seeing into the blind spot

Sophisticated car radar systems designed to predict crashes and provide lane change assistance could be fitted to top-of-the-range models within five years. The systems could also eventually offer automatic parking.

The technology has been developed for Ford by UK company Cambridge Consultants, and is expected to be operating on production vehicles by 2006.

The designers claim the radar is cheaper and more effective than other systems that are already used in some vehicles for adaptive cruise control.

adaptive cruise control allows cars to maintain a constant speed automatically but will brake and accelerate under computer control to ensure that drivers maintain a minimum distance from vehicles ahead.

Volkswagen, Jaguar and Mercedes use radar in top models for this purpose, and UMIST is working on more efficient antennas and chips that would allow manufacturers to introduce basic radar systems to all vehicles.

The developer of the Ford system claims its radar would warn drivers about potentially dangerous manoeuvres with sound or force feedback through the steering wheel. Any driver attempting to change lanes when another vehicle is fast approaching through the blind spot could find turning the steering wheel difficult. Otherwise drivers could be warned by an alarm or beep that rapidly increases in frequency.

If the vehicle was involved in a crash, the system would alsotransmit its location to the emergency services and activate airbags to reduce the risk of injury, said radar specialist and associate director of Cambridge Consultants Dr Gordon Oswald.

The radar works via four sensors at each of the car’s corners to provide 360 degree coverage. The cost of materials for each sensor is currently $100 (£63), which is what makes it so much cheaper than other competing systems, said Oswald.

The key to the technology’s efficiency is that the sensors operate between 5.8Ghz and 7.2Ghz and as such are considered second-generation technology. The first-generation systems use a higher frequency and require many more sensors, which increase the cost and complexity.

The new radar will map the edges of objects around the car and detect movement, including direction and speed. Electronics and software will then provide warnings, and in future even operate the car automatically for parking, said Oswald. The system is about to become operational, he claimed.

‘We have prototypes and are already testing them. The first production models will be launched in the US,’ he said.

The complete automatic control of a car is being hindered only by legal worries over who might take responsibility for fatal crashes, said the company.

Oswald also claimed the radar system could be used in other applications such as an ultrawideband (UWB) link to transmit large quantities of data over short distances. He said UWB would be able to network many devices and send large data files.