Taking the heat out of driving through tunnels

A project team including Fiat and Renault has developed a telematics system designed to prevent the type of accidents in major road tunnels that can lead to catastrophic fires.

The EU’s Safe Tunnel research project was initiated after the St Gotthard Tunnel disaster in Switzerland, which killed 11 drivers in 2001.

At the heart of the system is an on-board integrated unit that can be used by all vehicles, particularly HGVs, when they enter a tunnel, linking them to a control centre. The unit uses radar to monitor the relative position of vehicles inside the tunnel, allowing the control centre to recommend speed and safety distances.

The system also includes a thermal imaging gate, which employs infrared sensors to screen vehicles as they enter the tunnel and identify any that are overheated. The process will apply in particular to any HGVs that are carrying dangerous goods such as compressed gases or flammable liquids.

Safe Tunnel uses UMTS mobile technology to communicate with vehicles inside the tunnel, informing drivers of accidents ahead and suggesting escape routes. According to Fiat’s R&D division, which is leading the project, the system has already completed successful tests on a short stretch of the Frejus Tunnel motorway in Italy. Frejus was the scene of a major incident in June when a truck containing tyres caught fire, killing two people and injuring more than a dozen.

Project co-ordinator Paula Carrea claimed: ‘Accidents such as this one could have been prevented using part of the Safe Tunnel system.’

Early implementations of the technology will use portable telematic devices, which drivers pick up upon entering the tunnel and then return when they leave.

The project aims to reduce hazardous incidents in long tunnels by 50 per cent within the next six years. The Safe Tunnel team believes technology may eventually be available that allows the control centre to regulate engines and brakes remotely to achieve the recommended speed and distance between vehicles.