Superhighway code

Ford’s head of intelligent vehicle technology is pioneering the driver’s dream: a car that tells you about hazards via wireless communications – in real time.

Traffic-control rooms rely on cameras and ‘eye-in-the-sky’ helicopters to monitor the road network for jams, accidents and hazardous weather. But one car manufacturer hopes to give them access to a far more comprehensive source of data in the form of millions of its vehicles out and about at the sharp end.

Ford is hoping to convert its cars into mobile traffic and weather sensors, capable of alerting traffic authorities and other vehicles to jams and dangerous driving conditions on the roads.

As part of this effort, Dr. Ron Miller, project manager for intelligent vehicle technologies at Ford, is running a programme with the department of transportation in the US state of Minnesota, to develop a system that allows cars to talk to the highway and each other.

‘We realised that if we ever want to have real-time traffic monitoring we need to get information from outside the traditional infrastructure.

Cameras are usually placed in areas where there are known problems, but in an accident when people get off the highway, all of a sudden the cameras disappear.

‘We started out on this project a year ago, and out of our work there is now a national effort called Vehicles and Infrastructure Integration (VII),’ said Miller.

‘My programme in the research and advanced engineering department has been looking at ubiquitous wireless communication, or communication technologies that reside inside and outside the vehicle. Several test vehicles have been equipped with this wireless communication technology, and active research is underway to address safety and traffic congestion issues,’ he said.

During the first phase of the project, which is due to begin next month, state police cars, ambulances and state-owned cars and trucks will be equipped with sensors to gather traffic-related information such as vehicle speed, location and heading. Sensors will also collect information on the weather conditions by monitoring windscreen wiper operation, outside temperature, whether the cars’ lights are on or off, and the status of the traction-control system.

The traffic and weather data will be transmitted wirelessly to the state’s Condition Acquisition Reporting System, where it will be analysed and any important details made available on highway message signs, traffic information telephone lines and related websites. The information could also be used to deploy emergency services or road-maintenance crews, he said.

In the second stage of the project Miller hopes data can be transmitted directly to other vehicles, and is exploring the possibility of broadcasting the information through car stereos as a programming interruption, or through a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone or PDA in the car.

The system will be in operation throughout the ‘twin cities’ of Minneapolis and St Paul by the end of this year, while more than 50 vehicles are expected to be fitted with the technology by next spring. The system will ultimately be expanded to the rest of the state and other areas of the US.

‘Vehicles have become mobile sensors, so we can take an ambulance and equip it with the technology. But our real intention is to make products for our customers, so if a car has wireless communication technology it will immediately send information to the road and tell it how fast the driver is travelling and the conditions,’ he said.

This would strike fear into the hearts of many motorway drivers suspecting yet another way for the dreaded speed checks to catch them out. But according to Miller there are means of protecting the privacy of drivers while still providing important traffic information to the authorities.

‘You can obscure who the driver is, or only pass on information when there is a particular event. So if you are on the highway and doing 10mph, it is obvious there has been some kind of problem and the system will pass on that information. It is not there to catch you out doing 90mph down the freeway.’

To demonstrate the potential of intelligent vehicles Miller’s team has modified a Ford Explorer to create a concept vehicle, called S2RV, or Smart, Safe Research Vehicle, which is equipped with telematics technology and accident-avoidance systems. The telematics equipment includes voice-activated controls, reconfigurable displays and switches, a passive entry system, tyre-pressure sensors, SmartNav and a Bluetooth mobile phone.

On the safety side the car contains active night vision in which a laser illuminates an area larger than the high-beam headlights. The image is picked up by an infrared sensor just above the rear-view mirror, and the scene is then displayed on a screen on the dashboard.

To prevent the driver becoming distracted, the image is displayed on the dashboard for only around 10 seconds. ‘We don’t want you looking at the instrument panel, we want you to be looking ahead. We can build things in to make it more intelligent,’ said Miller.

The concept car also includes adaptive headlights, a wireless proximity warning system, a rear collision-warning system consisting of sensors mounted on the rear bumper, and an accident-avoidance camera system, based on a pair of cameras installed in the high-mount console just above the rear-view mirror. These track the position, speed and movements of other vehicles and assess the potential collision risk. Also included is a system called TrafficView, in which forward-pointing cameras mounted on the side-view mirrors give the driver a clear view around large vehicles in front.

‘We’re looking at how you integrate the technology into the vehicle so it looks like it belongs there. So we are investigating how you design the technology into the vehicle, how you set up the interface between the driver and the vehicle, right down to the physical layer like where you get the power to run these devices,’ said Miller.

The S2RV was launched last year, but the team has recently added new blind-spot sensors, based on the use of magneto-resistance technology. When the driver wants to change lane and activates an indicator, sensors under each side of the rear bumper gauge fluctuations in the magnetic field caused by another vehicle approaching. The system warns the driver if the vehicle is too close, by turning the indicator colour in the side-view mirror from orange to red, and sounding an audible warning.

Having developed the technology for the S2RV, the team is now attempting to transfer some of the systems on to production vehicles, and is also investigating new areas such as PowerLine Communication (PLC), said Miller.

‘If I put a camera in a car the camera has to have power to it, and I have to take the pictures from it, meaning separate dedicated wires. We are trying to change that, to send the signal down the power line, in the same way that people use power lines for home internet access.’

Digital images are encoded and then translated into a low-amplitude AC signal on the powerline of the vehicles. A transceiver at the display decodes the signal and then displays the image on the screen.

Miller is also working on a second-generation concept vehicle, to be launched at the Detroit Motor Show in 2005. While he was cagey about the technologies this vehicle will contain, he said it will include new networking and power-management technologies, as well as more safety systems.

‘There are going to be some advanced safety technologies that are going to help you stay out of accidents, and some consumer features to help your car integrate into your home life. It is about your car becoming smarter and knowing more about you.’

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