Quite apart from the human costs of having an accident, the European Road Safety Observatory (ERSO), which coordinates all activities of the European Community in the field of road accident and injury data collection and analysis, estimates that road accidents are a significant indirect cost of transport, amounting to some 8% of gross domestic product.
Sensors for safety
The Dutch, Spanish and Turkish partners of MEDEA+ project CARING CARS set out to make driving safer by developing an innovative, in-car network of sensors capable of running applications that monitor a driver's vital signs and then responding accordingly. Sensors integrated within specially developed conductive textiles are located in the car steering wheel and, through contact or near-contact with the driver's hands, monitor the driver's heart rate, while wearable sensors provide a range of additional data such as alertness and emotional state. Should a driver fall asleep, a buzzer or a vibration in the steering wheel or accelerator pedal will give the alert and wake him.
The sensor network is coupled with an open-standards control and communications infrastructure which gathers data and acts as a communications gateway to external points of contact, such as the emergency services and eCall, the European automated emergency alert system for summoning help to an automobile accident.
"In the event of a crash, the CARING CARS technology, which incorporates an on-board camera, can assess the severity of the situation and the level of emergency response required," explains Keith Baker, Director of Partnerships of Philips Applied Technologies, the project's Dutch lead partner. "Data on the location and condition of the passengers can be transmitted to rescue personnel and healthcare professionals and help to identify any potential risks. When emergency teams are on site, information can be communicated to hospitals, increasing the efficiency of the response and potentially reducing the impact of injuries in the critical first hour or so after an accident.
Sensors and technologies developed by the CARING CARS project members have applications for other controllable environments such as offices, homes and hospitals. One line of research into monitoring a baby's temperature with a camera while in a car seat evolved into an application for monitoring people asleep in bed. According to Baker: "A sensor can detect an increase in temperature from the change in colour on a person's face caused by an effect on the blood vessels and aid in monitoring the sleeping patterns of people suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary lung diseases (COPD), such as bronchitis or emphysema, either in hospital or their homes. COPD is a rising problem for the greying population. It's useful to be able to monitor a COPD patient's sleeping pattern to check whether it's comfortable, or whether they have a problem with an infection or the oxygen level in their blood, and wake them if necessary to use a respirator."
Keeping an eye on novice drivers
According to ERSO, 16-25 year old drivers are two to three times more likely to have an accident than more experienced drivers, while recent road casualty statistics from the UK's Department for Transport show that a third of men who are killed or seriously injured on Britain's roads are under 25. For each young driver killed, 1.3 others also die, either passengers or other road users.
Some insurance companies won't insure young drivers, while others charge prohibitively expensive premiums; according to the UK's Automobile Association, the average cost of insuring 17-22 year olds has rocketed by 51% in the last year alone. Some companies are showing an interest in the CARING CARS technology as a way of monitoring the on-road behaviour of young drivers. The system would enable them to offer younger motorists with a record of safe driving more affordable premiums or, as an ultimate sanction, withdraw cover from reckless drivers. The project's Dutch partner NXP, a leading manufacturer of semiconductors, is currently developing 4,000 modules with an insurance company for trials in Assen, which is known as 'Sensor City' for its major sensor network.
High market potential
The project partners are also collaborating individually with telecoms providers and vehicle manufacturers to develop and test specific applications. The market potential for such applications is high, and includes a wide range of commercial driving applications such as taxicabs, commercial vehicle fleets and hire cars. Spanish aerospace partner Deimos is currently developing applications for eCall in Spain, and Turkish partner Tofaş, which makes light commercial vehicles for the European market, is developing a computer module for Fiat and PSA Peugeot Citroλn.
All the services developed rely on the use of an on-board control unit and gateway capable of linking to a range of wireless networks. "We envisage vehicle manufacturers installing the on-board unit into top-end cars as standard one day," says Baker, "enabling its facilities to be marketed as a range of additional vehicle options either by the manufacturers or third party service suppliers. By 2018, all new cars could be fitted with such on-board units, offering the same potentially life-saving facilities as those demonstrated by CARING CARS."
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