Forget sexy: the car of the future is all about safety

May 3, 2003

GOTHENBURG, Sweden — First, a flashing light alerts you that a car coming up behind is about to pass you. Then a tiny camera lets you survey the entire manoeuvre, blind spot and all. Suddenly, a computerized voice warns you to slow down. When you ignore the warning, your car automatically brakes.

Aided by Swedish know-how in electronics and information technology, the country's car manufacturers are developing the "intelligent car", aimed at ridding the road of lurking dangers, which they hope will be the transport choice of the future.

"There are numerous solutions to explore with sensors and embedded systems," Johan Hultstam de Valcy of the Invest in Sweden Agency told AFP.

"There are very good and cheap cameras on cellphones today. Adapting them to cars is undoubtedly a good idea," he added.

The agency has launched a research project aimed at developing security systems for the "intelligent car", which unites Sweden's two national car makers, Volvo Car and Saab, with car equipment suppliers, electronic organizations, technical universities, and foreign partners.

"Electronic platforms in a premium car today account for more than 50 percent of the research and development costs," Hultstam said, adding that even more money would certainly be dedicated to electronic equipment research in the years to come.

"It's not our aim to have a fully automated system. We just want the driver to make the smart decision" in a dangerous situation, Ingrid Skogsmo, director of Volvo Car's security center, told AFP.

Volvo Car, which became a subdivision of US car manufacturer Ford in 1999, is working on several embedded systems focused on assisting inattentive, distracted and careless drivers.

The solutions are as numerous as they are clever.

In addition to having a camera installed on the rear-view mirror to allow drivers to see cars passing in their blind spot, the car of the future will be equipped with an automatic breathalyzer that is switched on at the same time as the ignition and that stalls the vehicle if the driver is over the limit.

A sensor with a range of 120 meters (400 feet) warns drivers when they are getting too close to the car in front. And when a car is really tailgating another vehicle, an embedded software program automatically slows it down.

Linked by GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication) to a database that provides information on speed-limits across the road network, another system trips a visible or audible warning each time the vehicle goes too fast. A variant of this system can even block the accelerator pedal to stop the driver from going faster.

"After a trial, most people think that ISA (Intelligent Speed Adaption) should be extended to all vehicles," Torbjoern Biding, the ISA project leader at the Sweden National Road Administration and the mind behind the "anti-speed" system.

But are drivers really willing to see the massive horsepower they paid top-dollar for bridled beyond their control? "The time has not come to do such a thing. Consumers would probably choose another car," Volvo Car spokesman Christer Gustafsson told AFP.

The project therefore aims to alert drivers to dangers and to avoid collisions rather than to encroach on the driver's sacred "freedom".

"For us, the technology is more or less ready," said Tore Helmersson, the head of security at Saab, now a branch of US General Motors. "It is more a question of the demand from the public, (of whether) they are willing to pay more for the service." While waiting for the public to warm to their new security gadgets, which will never be able to completely eliminate the risk of an accident on the road, manufacturers are concentrating on improving the solidity of their cars, so that they at the very least can protect occupants in the event of of a crash. –Sapa-AFP

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