New directions in car safety and navigation

Automotive safety features are increasingly being developed to address emergencies, with communications technology a top priority. Photos: Car safety down the road

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
7 min read

The car of the future won't just be more fuel efficient. It's likely to help you get where you trying to go even if you're facing dangerous conditions.

The ordeal of CNET's James Kim and his family in the backwoods of Oregon has consumers and automakers alike discussing what more can be done to improve the navigation and emergency-safety features of automobiles. There are no easy answers to the problem. Modern in-car emergency-communications systems like General Motors' OnStar or BMW Assist are helpful, but such subscription-based systems rely on cellular networks for connectivity, which often isn't available in thinly populated or remote areas.

Nonetheless, auto manufacturers, suppliers and government agencies are working on various new technologies that can aid in an emergency. The developments include everything from advanced navigation systems to emergency brake sensors to car-to-car wireless communication systems, which rely on a sensor network to warn vehicles (and, in turn, drivers) of inclement weather, road closures or accidents up ahead.

"People are spending more time in their vehicles than they ever have, so it makes sense to engineer more communications systems into your car, something that could communicate with your home or office, and adapt personal electronics assistants, like PDAs, and integrate them with the vehicle," said Nick Cappa, manager of advanced technology communications at DaimlerChrysler.

Cappa added: "You can be assured that all the car manufacturers are looking at a lot more ways of increasing communications with vehicles and the outside world."

Car safety

According to experts, one of the most helpful technologies currently available are in-car navigation systems, which most automakers sell as an option for about $2,000. Nestled in the front dash, navigation screens display road maps of the majority of the country. The maps are culled from data stored on a DVD in the car. GPS locators then synchronize data on the car's whereabouts to cast the right map onto the screen. That information alone can lower a driver's likelihood of getting stuck somewhere, because the driver at least has a sense of direction and a path toward safety. (Even in a remote location out of range of a cellular connection, navigation systems can still download predictive maps that give drivers an idea where they are.)

But what's missing in that equation is up-to-date information on road closures, bad weather, traffic jams and accidents--data that can be key to avoiding a wrong turn. Experts say upcoming navigation systems will be more active, thanks to cellular or satellite links to real-time weather, road or traffic information that can be displayed over location maps. Satellite connections are typically more robust than cellular ones in remote locations.

"Next-generation navigation systems will have connectivity and map a certain state of the road, whether it's closed or snowy, or even traffic-heavy, to give you an understanding of conditions," said Arne Stoschek, who heads development of displays and sensors at the Electronics Research Lab at Volkswagen of America. For example, a stretch of road that's icy could be marked on the map in red, and roads without problems could be shown in green, he said.

Stepping up satellite service
Companies like XM Satellite Radio are already on this path. In the last two years, XM launched NavTraffic, a satellite-based service that overlays current traffic conditions onto maps in a car's navigation system. The service, which costs $13 per month, was first available in Honda's 2005 Acura RL and is newly available in the 2007 Nissan Altima, among others.

In early 2007 at the international Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, XM also plans to unveil a similar service for weather, tentatively called "Weatherlink," according to XM spokesman Brian Gluckman. It will overlay real-time weather information similar to a service available for boating, which must be highly accurate in the event of unexpected squalls. Weatherlink will be available through a car manufacturer and within handheld devices, yet to announced, he said.

Google and others are working on this technology, too. At CES earlier this year, Google and Volkswagen announced a partnership to develop future car navigation systems that feature three-dimensional, satellite-based maps connected to Google Earth. They showed off a prototype at CES with a touch-screen interface.

The companies, along with chipmaker Nvidia, are working on infusing lifelike graphical terrain maps, pulled from satellite images, with real-time data on traffic, routing and weather, as well as "automatic personalized content," according to the companies. With that kind of imagery, drivers could have a much better understanding of where they are and how to get out of a bad situation. It will be available in showrooms "in the near future," Google and VW said.

In a sign of what's to come, Google worked with Carnegie Mellon University software engineers to bring aerial maps of areas damaged by Hurricane Katrina to rescuers. Google pulled aerial maps from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and used them to overlay satellite imagery and other maps, giving emergency workers and homeowners a better look at the damage. Microsoft is working on similar technology for the car, according to at least one source.

Tech for the safe driver
Most car manufacturers are introducing new safety technology enabled through a variety of sensors or radar installed on the car. Volvo, among others, sells cars with a so-called blind-spot information system. Via radar on the side of the car, the system can detect a vehicle driving in a blind spot. It then turns on an LED warning light in the car's rear-view mirror.

Similarly, collision-warning systems use sensors to detect the speed of a preceding car. If that vehicle slows abruptly, the warning system would trigger the vehicle's brakes.

Carmakers like Daimler Chrysler are working on electronic stability programs, which through sensors on the car can detect things like wheel slippage, obstacles on the road, and how fast the wheel is being turned in order to make decisions for the driver on traction control. For example, if the sensors detect that tires are spinning on snow or ice, the system will change the pressure of the throttle automatically to compensate for what the driver is trying to do.

Automated car emergency break systems are also likely to pervade next-generation vehicles, experts say. Radar sensors on the car will be able to scan the road ahead and detect obstacles, as well as sense the brake pressure of the driver. If the driver doesn't act, the car would brake or swerve automatically. Yet there are legal questions raised by a car that can act on its own in an emergency: is the car or the driver responsible in the event of an accident?

More futuristic is a Volvo safety concept car that includes a dock for a small personal digital assistant. Drivers can load routing information or personal medical records into the PDA, and then dock it in the car so it can be uploaded and accessible to an emergency medical technician in the event of an accident. That technology could be five years down the road, according to Dan Johnston, a spokesman for Volvo.

Car-to-car communication
In the next 7 to 10 years, we could see a wireless communication system linking cars to a network of roadside units that could, theoretically, alert vehicles electronically to road closures, bad weather, traffic jams or accidents.

Almost all major car manufacturers are working on so-called vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) wireless communication systems. These systems use a dedicated short-range communication, or DSRC, between cars that alerts drivers when dangers such as a collision are imminent. The government has even allocated a short-range wireless transmission standard--802.11p, which operates in the 5.9GHz frequency band--specifically for this purpose.

Here's how it works: a GPS antenna on the top of the car receives satellite information on the positions of other cars. A wireless antenna on top of the vehicle also receives up to 100 different data points from the car's internal network, including information on speed, braking and the use of turn signals. The computer system combines that data and broadcasts it.

That message is heard by any other equipped car within a quarter-mile radius. To ensure privacy, the messages do not include car identification numbers or personal information. The car's software constantly calculates, in real time, other vehicles' positions and speeds.

GM, for example, has already tested the system in its Cadillac STS sedans, which were modified with wireless antennae. GM's proprietary algorithm, called the "threat assessment algorithm," can process data from the GPS and the car's computer network, along with messages from other cars, in order to fire off warnings and prevent collisions.

Government programs in California and other states are also promoting the development of units along major roadways that could communicate with cars' navigation systems. Radar transmitters on roadways could broadcast safety information to navigation systems within cars, for example.

Applications of this technology include sending warning signals to cars from a traffic light, which would let drivers know whether the light is red or green well before the intersection comes into view. Or it could help when the weather is bad. "When you close a road, a transmitter on the sign could signal cars in the area that the road is closed. You'd get a big warning in the car: don't take this road," said Sebastian Thrun, professor of robotics at Stanford University.

But before it's adopted, the public must accept it. Although it can help in a desperate situation, it can also impede privacy by sending out a constant signal of a car's whereabouts.

Experts believe this issue will be ironed out by keeping personal information and car GPS separate.

"Cars are no longer chosen by horsepower--customers are looking at increased safety," said VW's Stosche.