Today's cars are safer than ever before. But the truth is they could be even safer. The trick is figuring out how. After strengthening the chassis, installing air bags, even inventing automated seat belt tightening devices, Big Car is turning its attention to the weakest point in the whole makeup. You.
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The day a computer can take over when the driver loses control is far off. For the time being, car manufacturers have to settle for gently nudging the driver. For instance, via a steering wheel that vibrates when the driver deviates from the road. Or "proximity alert" warning lights that go on when he tailgates. Or brakes capable of stopping the beast on a dime.
Naturally, Big Car is not inventing all those lovely things by itself. The manufacturers make use of subcontractors and suppliers. One of these is an Israeli company called Mobileye of Jerusalem. Founded in 1999, the company sells computerized "vision applications" to BMW, Volvo and General Motors. And in 2009, Peugeot-Citroen, Renault and Mazda will be joining the client list for its advanced video processing technology.
Mobileye's driver assistance system for accident prevention or mitigation is based on a digital camera and a computer that analyzes the data from the camera. The advance warning system uses advanced vision technologies to recognize hazards such as lane changes, measure the distance between cars in motion and compute your speed relative to the car in front of you. Put simply, it can recognize when the car is at risk and alert the driver. In some cases it can also cause the vehicle to slow down. In the near future, the system will be able to recognize traffic signs and adjust the headlights as a function of visibility conditions.
"The adaptations of the feature are tailored to the specific demand of the manufacturer," said Mobileye's development manager and chairman, Amnon Shashua, a professor of computer science. The manufacturer defines the system it wants and solicits tender bids from its main suppliers, both for research and development and to supply the system. "For instance, BMW contacted suppliers such as Siemens, and it's the one that contacted us to put together an appropriate proposal," Shashua said.
Mobileye is not settling for selling technology to the big car manufacturers. It wants the general public to buy from it as well. Happily, it had the sense to retain the rights to its technology, said Ido Amir, the company's business development manager. "A year ago we turned the product into an 'after-market product,'" which means that it can be installed after the car is bought.
The product is already being marketed in many countries, including the United States, Japan, Britain, China and South Africa. Mobileye is also negotiating distribution in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. "Within a few years, electronic warning systems will be sold in every new car," predicted Shashua. "After-market sales will decline as these systems become the standard."
Back in Israel, however, sales of advance warning systems are not exactly taking off. During the first year of local marketing, about 2,000 units were sold. Possibly price was a deterrent. The system is sold under the name AWACS through a company of that name. Drivers do not buy the system outright; they lease it through a four-year contract for NIS 129 a month. Moran Citrin, CEO of AWACS, claims that the price is not in fact steep. "That's not much compared with what people spend on television each month," she argued.
Another possible explanation for the sluggish sales on its home turf is drivers' tendency to rely on their own rapid response ability and their confidence in their driving skill. They do not feel the urge for electronic nagging. But even if Israelis may feel supremely confident of their own prowess, they cannot always rely on that of their offspring. Here, too, there are solutions.
"We added a new feature to the system," Citrin said. "All the alerts are saved on a web site and drivers can track them. It is also possible to send a real-time SMS (cell phone text message) and the parents can call the kid, preventing further dangerous driving."
That tempting option, together with discounted insurance premiums for new drivers who install the system, could make the system attractive to a new segment - families with teen drivers. It is a Big Brother system for Mom and Dad to make sure the youngsters are not playing chicken with the car.
Families with young drivers were what the traffic safety organization Or Yarok ("Green Light") had in mind with the following experiment. It installed a system called "Green Box" in the cars of 124 such families. The green box included a G-force gauge and satellite location system. Armed with that data, the system can recognize sudden braking, sharp lane deviations or strong braking when entering a curve. Its output is a driving profile marked in green, yellow and red as a function of the number of dangerous maneuvers.
Using the web site, drivers can monitor their risk levels in each drive. The system is the brainchild of the Israeli company Green Road (formerly called Drive Diagnostics). The company designed it primarily for the use of car fleets, and had not only safety but environmental concerns in mind. Hod Fleishman, Green Road's business development manager, said there is a statistically significant correlation between driving style and fuel economy.
Or Yarok is less concerned about smog and more concerned about road deaths. The association points at the statistically significant correlation between driving style and the probability of being involved in an accident. A study it conducted recently tracked the driving profiles of young drivers from the time they received their licenses. The timeline was broken down into three parts: the period of parental supervision, no parental supervision, and driving with feedback.
Dr. Tsippy Lotan, Or Yarok's chief scientist, said that the period of parental supervision was found to be characterized by few trips, most of which received a green profile. "Afterward, once the driver is out alone, comes a very problematic period. Ego combines with social pressure and inexperience, which is dangerous. During this period, there are a lot of reports of 'red driving.' After we report that to the parents, we see the driving becoming calmer and safer again."
Or Yarok's goal is to stick a green box in the car of every young driver. Lotan urges incentives, such as discounted insurance premiums.
Or Yarok collects the data primarily for the benefit of the driver, but in the case of youngsters, for the families as well. "We saw in the study that the monitoring affected adult drivers as well," said Lotan. After several months, the number of visits to the web site diminishes, but the safer pattern of driving remains. "That means driving habits changed," she explained.
What about the police? Surely they would like to see the data, too.
"That isn't the purpose," she said firmly, adding that the data cannot serve as evidence in court. The insurance companies might like to see it when pricing policies, such as discounts for "green" drivers, but this is not information for the police, said Lotan.
Her purpose is to improve the awareness of the driver himself. But once an electronic system is collecting driving data at all times, it is not unthinkable that the law enforcement authorities might want to be in the loop. It might start with a few extraordinary cases, such as analyzing a bad accident. But later, the police monitoring might become more routine.
Mobileye's system warns of dangerous situations on the road. The green box warns of dangerous driving habits. But neither is worth a sou without the cooperation of the driver. Without driver awareness, the Mobileye alerts will go unheeded and the Or Yarok green box web site unvisited. All the technology can do in such cases is involve the parents, employer or some other authority to warn the driver. Sadly, that indicates that the driver cares more about sanctions at home or at work than possible injury on the road.
Can fear of punishment really change driving habits for good? That is debatable.
What is certain, however, is that thorough understanding of the importance of safe driving will have greater impact. Systems like these are an important tool - like crutches, if you will. But there is no question that developing awareness of one's own driving habits is the real key to surviving on the roads, and you can develop that completely for free.