January 1, 2007 The human factor -- such as the lag in reaction to unforeseen events -- is the primary cause of road accidents. Researchers are now experimenting with WiFi technology to make cars talk to each other and to transmitters along the road, and to alert drivers of dangers such as an approaching vehicle at an intersection. The smart-car technology includes screens on cars' dashboards that flash red arrows when it's not safe to turn, while and warning arrows also appear on signs alongside the road.
BERKELEY, Calif. -- Five grand, 15 grand, 50 grand -- you get what you pay for in a car. But a sweet ride doesn't guarantee a safe ride.
"The primary problem, or the primary issue, is the driver," Jim Misener, a transportation safety researcher at University of California, Berkeley, tells DBIS.
What if cars could pick up signals that could save your life, know when to stop, know when there's been an accident, even know when it's safe to turn? Sounds far out, but smart cars are closer than you may think.
Making the driver more alert is what researchers at UC Berkeley are doing by using the latest WiFi technology. "Cars talking to one another, the environment or the roadside talking and listening to cars," Misener says.
Smart cars are combining with smart roads. Transmitters along the road beam up wireless signals to a receiver on the car. An alert flashes inside the car.
"Basically it measures the interaction between all road users at that particular intersection," Misener says. "So it certainly is the oncoming car, it's your car, and includes pedestrians and bicyclists."
As a car approaches, the screen on a smart car's dashboard flashes a red arrow when it's not safe to turn. A warning arrow also appears on a sign alongside the road. This same system is used to warn a driver when it's not safe to enter an intersection. Vehicles can also transmit traffic and road condition information.
Car companies are working to implement systems like this in their new cars. They also hope to be able to use these systems to notify drivers of warranty or recall needs.
"All we're doing is informing or alerting or warning the driver. The driver is still responsible," Misener says. But now, thanks to human factors research, drivers will have a little more help to get them where they're going -- safely.
BACKGROUND: Smart cars and smart roads are the wave of the future, as the U.S. Federal Highway Administration has begun to explore vehicle-to-roadside and vehicle-to-vehicle communication using wireless transmission.
HOW IT WORKS: As part of California's Vehicle Infrastructure Integration Initiative (also see the National Vehicle-Infrastructure Coalition), a transmitter embedded in the road would beam wireless signals, which would in turn be detected by the receiver in the "smart car." An alert would be displayed on a monitor in the car if there were an accident or icy road up ahead, or if it were unsafe to enter an intersection. Vehicles could serve both as data collectors and also anonymously transmit traffic and road condition information from every major road within the transportation networks. Also, car manufacturers could more quickly notify drivers of warranty or recall needs.
THE PHYSICS OF TRAFFIC: Conventional scientific wisdom compares traffic jams to the process of freezing, where a flowing liquid turns into a solid. On a sparsely populated highway the cars are far apart and can move at whatever speed they choose while freely moving between lanes – much like the molecules in a gas. In heavier traffic, the cars are more densely packed with less room to maneuver, so cars move at slower average speeds and traffic behaves more like a liquid. If the cars become too densely packed, their speed is reduced, and their movement restricted, to such an extent that they almost stop moving altogether and form a "solid" expanse of traffic -- "freezing" into ice.
WHAT ARE MEMS: Microelectro-mechanical systems (MEMs) integrate electronic and moving parts onto a microscopic silicon chip, making them ideal for new sensor technology. The term MEMS was coined in the 1980s. A MEMS device is usually only a few micrometers wide; for comparison, a human hair is 50 micrometers wide. Among other everyday applications, MEMS-based sensors are used in cars to detect the sudden motion of a collision and trigger release of the airbag. They are also found in ink-jet printers, blood pressure monitors, and projection display systems.
The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.