Wired for safety: Sensors, electronics and robotics provide protection, collision avoidance

Jan. 1, 2020
What a difference 40 years makes. Back when Baby Boomers were nervously applying for their learner's permits, race car drivers and aircraft pilots were the only ones wearing seatbelts. Cars had steel dashboards and AM radios with protruding knobs. In
What a difference 40 years makes. Back when Baby Boomers were nervously applying for their learner's permits, race car drivers and aircraft pilots were the only ones wearing seatbelts. Cars had steel dashboards and AM radios with protruding knobs. In-cabin high technology was an aftermarket FM converter bolted under the glove compartment, later joined by a whirring 8-track tape player.

Fast-forward to today, and consumers are consistently clamoring for the latest sensors and computerized electronics engineered with occupant protection and crash avoidance in mind. Manufacturers, in turn, are eager to oblige with the most innovative and sophisticated technological advances aimed at meeting these peace-of-mind concerns.

"People are very conscious about the safety of their vehicles, and the OEs are adapting to it at an amazing rate," says Phil Headley, chief engineer for advanced technologies at Continental North America. "It used to be they'd say, 'Safety doesn't sell,' but now it does."

Currently much of this equipment is installed and programmed on the assembly line. "Electronic stability control has to be tuned to the vehicle," Headley explains. "But there is a place in the aftermarket for things such as backup cameras and lane departure systems that don't have to be integrated into the vehicle."

The overall "car tech" market — covering the convergence of automotive safety, security, convenience and entertainment systems — has doubled over the past five years and is expected to top $12 billion by the end of this year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

Among the highlights of the organization's giant January exposition in Las Vegas was the running of a driverless robotic Chevrolet Tahoe enhanced by Carnegie Mellon University's Tartan Racing Team and an array of industry sponsors.

"We and some of the other suppliers got involved to learn more about our technologies," says Headley. "Some of the radars that we furnished for that vehicle are on production vehicles today," he points out. "It shows that you don't have to go out and buy military radars to make it work, and some of the (other) technologies could be put into production relatively soon."

General Motors has announced that cars that drive themselves could be ready for sale within a decade based on technologies at work on the experimental Tahoe.

Known as "The Boss," the vehicle claimed first place in the Defense Advance Research Project Agency (DARPA) Urban Challenge. Entrant vehicles had to navigate, park and handle traffic on a 60-mile urban course within a six-hour time limit. Relying only on sensors and computers, they had to obey traffic laws, merge into moving traffic, avoid obstacles and negotiate intersections while dodging real-life traffic represented by 50 moving sedans with human drivers. Avoiding and outpacing the 10 other race finalists in this vigorous robot-on-robot competition was yet another challenge.

The Boss employs 10 computers with 200,000 lines of software plus lasers, radars and cameras that sense roads, signs and assorted hazards.

"We believe the Urban Challenge was not 'pie in the sky' thinking on display," says Dr. Karl-Thomas Neumann, Continental's chief technology officer. "Instead, we view the competition as an incubator for the driving experience of the future."

"We are excited to be using our electronics expertise to help our automotive customers develop safety technologies that achieve our vision of zero vehicle crashes and injuries in the future," concurs Bill Kozyra, the company's president and CEO.

Auto buyers are eagerly seeking vehicles designed to keep them "safe, green and connected," says Frank Ordoñez, president of Delphi Product & Service Solutions. "And the evolution of vehicle technology is saving lives. These technologies help occupants be safer — and bring opportunity to independent aftermarket shops."

"Included in this safety category are components that are standard equipment on many vehicles today, and many more are gaining traction in the market. The amount of safety electronics content on vehicles is increasing at an impressive clip," Ordoñez. says.

"This is a good thing for the aftermarket industry. Many of these components contain maintainable, replaceable parts and service opportunities, which is important for our future," he forecasts, emphasizing the need for ongoing repairer training.

"The increased complexity of safety vehicle systems and components — especially in electronic content — is also making a technician's job more and more demanding, says Ordoñez. "As vehicles age or as new safety accessories are made available there will inevitably be software updates. Technicians can utilize reprogramming as a basic tune-up for vehicle electronics," he adds.

"Many problems — software and hardware — are now being solved with reprogramming, opening new avenues for revenue for shops," according to Ordoñez. "To keep up with these technologies and diagnostic processes, we must all invest in training. Electronics is in every business, in every industry."

Creating a buzz

DENSO Corp.'s Pre-Collision System, jointly developed with Toyota, is now available in North America on the Lexus LS 430. First launched in Japan in early 2003, the technology identifies inevitable obstacles — via millimeter-wave radar — a split second prior to a collision, automatically tightening the seatbelts and activating a pre-collision brake system.

Other projects include adaptive cruise control systems covering a full speed range from zero to 85 mph, automatically adjusting as necessary to keep a safe distance from other vehicles. "This is an excellent safety advantage at low speeds when drivers tend to be less attentive to driving," says Doug Patton, senior vice president of product engineering for DENSO International America. "The various sensor data enables a smoother, unnoticeable speed control for the entire speed range, enabling precise monitoring of the road and cruising conditions for safe driving in a variety of traffic situations," he explains.

To ease driver stress and workload, DENSO is developing "haptic" devices to operate cabin controls on a "no-look" basis; the driver doesn't have to actually press any switches nor look away from the road to locate them, especially with combined with a head-up display.

"Haptic technology interfaces the user through the sense of touch by applying forces, vibrations or clicking. This mechanical stimulation is feedback for the user, giving a more precise 'feel' of operation," says Patton, who spoke in January at Detroit's North American International Auto Show.

"We're currently working on a couple design options for our haptic technology," he reports. "One is a multi-functional control on the steering wheel, and the other is a center-console control module — which functions like a joystick and can be operated by both driver and front seat passenger," he notes.

"Our challenge is to generate a buzz for haptic technology in the market, which up until now is more familiar with touch-screen options," Patton points out.

Another new technology on the horizon monitors a vehicle operator's physical condition by studying the driver's face and measuring eye blinking and heart rate. An eye closure of 0.5 seconds or more indicates drowsiness or fatigue, prompting the DENSO system to supply neck ventilation and a warning sound alert to the driver.