Monday, 31 May 2004 10:00

How collision avoidance systems will affect your auto body business

Written by Dick Strom

Nothing makes me cringe - physically turning my insides to mush - like the squeal of tires in that desperate, futile, out-of-control second before an inevitable collision. Having cleaned up too many blood-splattered cars, I'm in favor of anything that would assure deathless, injury-less accidents. Collision Avoidance Systems, devices currently being developed and fine-tuned to minimize the frequency and severity of auto accidents promise to drastically change the way we drive. These will also greatly change the collision repair landscape. 

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Washington State's Autobody Craftsman Association (ACA-WA) recently hosted a two-hour Technical Seminar on Collision Avoidance Systems of the near future, presented by Richard Bishop of Bishop Consulting (www.IVsource.net). In his seminar, Bishop gave us a flavor of what is happening in new car technology to minimize accidents, possibly even eventually eliminating them altogether.

A great effort is presently being made to create "cars that don't crash." In essence, computerized intelligence built into vehicles of the present and near future t could virtually eliminate collisions as we know them today. The ambitious goal is to reduce formerly fatal accidents into, at most, serious accidents, serious accidents to fender-benders, and fender-benders to minor bumps. The technology needed to accomplish this end is being rapidly developed, much of it taking place in Asia.

The obvious question from the standpoint of collision repairers: What effect will high-tech crash avoidance systems have on the future of collision repair? Assisted by power-point visuals, Bishop proceeded to give us a fascinating glimpse of what lies ahead for the repair world, pointing out that some early collision avoidance systems are presently being factory-installed on certain vehicles.

"Lets start by pointing out that there are basically two levels of driving. The first concerns things like, where am I going, when will I change lanes - decisions that may take minutes or even hours. Then there's the tactical side, the moment-to-moment aspect of operating your vehicle, involving steering, brakes, and throttle. This is where intelligent vehicles systems come into play - providing essential information to the driver to warn him of possible problems on the road behind, around, or ahead of him, even controlling the vehicle, assisting the driver in operating brakes, steering, and so forth. The whole idea is optimal vehicle operation, primarily for better safety, but also for better efficiency," began Bishop.

"The applications of vehicle intelligence are split up into convenience, safety, and traffic assistance. Convenience systems, which don't claim any safety benefits, are designed to assist the driver in the 'soft' areas such as speed, stress, and hassles - the sort of things that tire us while driving, and can lead to accidents.

Adaptive cruise control

The main convenience system, available today on a limited number of vehicles, is called adaptive cruise control. This feature is presently on around 10,000 U.S. cars, and costs the owner an additional $800-$2000 per vehicle. This radar (laser) operated device, upon detecting a slower moving vehicle ahead, decreases your speed, unless you move to an open lane.

Adaptive cruise control will also maintain a pre-set distance between you and the vehicle ahead, until that vehicle moves out of your lane or you change lanes, before automatically accelerating your vehicle back to the pre-set speed. Basically, it provides foot-free driving in the over-40 mph range, but isn't made for stop-and-go driving. Truckers who use it save about 5% of fuel costs - acceleration and deceleration being much smoother.

"Over the past 20 years the emphasis has been on producing crash-worthy automobiles with optimum occupant protection. The next 20 years will be about collision mitigation (developing safety systems that detect driving problems and warn the driver early enough to prevent a collision, or greatly reducing the energy in a crash), and crash-avoidance (the goal of reducing crashes altogether).

"Last year alone there were 42,116 U.S. auto-related fatalities, and so the U.S. DOT has set the incredibly ambitious goal of reducing the overall auto and large truck crash-related fatality rate by one-third, plus reducing the road-departure crash rate drastically, all by 2008. Japan's goal is to reduce fatalities 50% by 2013. Europe and England are aiming toward having 20% of new cars equipped with driver safety systems by 2010."

Interestingly, whereas the U.S. is concerned more about crash rates in general, the rest of the world seems to be looking at reducing fatalities, simply because it's easier to work on reducing fatalities than on overall numbers of crashes. Due to air bags and other safety systems now standard equipment on vehicles, fatality numbers are leveling off, while the number of crashes continues to rise.

More applications of vehicle intelligence

Lane-keeping helps maintain lane position. Automated-parking, basically hands-free parallel parking, enables your vehicle to steer itself into a parallel parking spot. If the opening is too small, this feature will let you know. Curve-speed warning lets you know if you are going too fast around a curve, and systems that will pre-arm airbags and pre-tension shoulder-harnesses are being developed. But one development lacking support in the U.S. is external vehicle speed control, a forced method of limiting speed. Speed control systems are easier to market in Europe where speeding carries hefty fines.

Night vision, presently available in some vehicles, gives drivers a heads-up on night-shrouded obstacles. Typically displayed on a dash-mounted screen, rather than a windshield-reflected 'heads-up' type display, 'night vision' is close enough that drivers can keep their eyes on the road. Adaptive headlights, which follow the curves in a road, will eliminate much 'blind' driving at night.

Virtual rumble (simulation of the sound and/or feel your tires make when you cross the fog-line rumble-strip on many highways) will warn drivers that stray from their traffic lane. Virtual rumble is activated by video cameras that read the road lines. Drivers will be alerted by vibrations in the steering wheel and drivers seat, without other occupants knowing, which is much less embarrassing for the driver.


The near future for transit buses will include lane assist steering, and precision maneuvering and docking which will help larger vehicles maneuver between tightly parked vehicles, and park as close as one inch from bus stop landings for handicapped accessibility.

Bishop continued, "Things that 'smart cars' can do to smooth out traffic situations, which reduce driver frustration and fatigue, will include greatly reducing the accordion-like movement of vehicles (the time lag each vehicle in a line waits behind the vehicle ahead before resuming forward movement) as they begin accelerating from a stop. This could eliminate many common traffic jam situations and reduce pollution by allowing more cars to advance through each traffic light, which could possibly triple the traffic capacity of existing roadways.

Making truck driving safer

"Trucks are major players on our roadways, and have an economic need to avoid crashes. FedEx's 9,000 trucks drive about 2.3 million miles per day, and there are more than 20 other trucking companies that log similar miles, as well as thousands of smaller trucking companies. Some of these have been using radar-based systems since 1993, and one trucking company reports a 92% reduction in crashes because of it. forward collision warning

A more recent technology is roll-over prevention, a system that calculates the physics involved in safely negotiating a road curve, warning the driver if the vehicle is likely to exceed a computer-generated threshold and, in some cases, de-fueling the engine and/or automatically activating the braking system when that threshold is exceeded.

Trucking and transportation companies are presently working with advanced systems to perfect how vehicles communicate with each other so they can operate very close together. Eventually, this system might make it possible for one truck or bus driver to also safely operate several other (driverless) vehicles on our highways, all at the same time, from his leading vehicle. Vehicles that can perform automatic lane keeping in narrow-lane urban areas are presently operating in Europe, and one is presently being installed in Las Vegas."

Who is at fault?

The question of who is at fault (the avoidance system maker, the auto manufacturer who installs it, or the driver), should one of these systems cause an accident while being properly operated, is still up in the air. But in the end, it will be the driver who ultimately holds the responsibility of maintaining control of his vehicle. Keeping in mind our natural tendency toward forgetfulness, these systems are being designed to need no calibration whatsoever after installation; throughout their lifetime, they will re-calibrate themselves. According to Bishop, "They won't be allowed on the market if they need upkeep or human calibration."

If systems are eventually developed to operate past the point of warning - to actually braking the vehicle and like tasks - what engineers don't want to do is take driving functions totally away from the driver. In other words, though certain aspects of vehicle control may operate automatically, the driver still has ultimate control (ability to override automatic braking, steering, etc.) of the vehicle.

Research and development has also been done on drivers' eyelid closure detection, a device that detects the percent of closure of the driver's eyelids, and warns him he may be falling asleep.

Interestingly, we don't know that much about how people drive - most data we have has come from crashes. So our government has equipped 100 vehicles with all kinds of instrumentation that are driven around the country under different driving conditions; these have also videotaped several of their own unplanned crashes.

Bishop continued, "With these systems the driver is in total control; but smart vehicle components are there to help out along the way. In a situation where a collision is certain, the vehicle then takes action to protect its occupants. This is nothing new - we've been receiving protection via airbags and seatbelt restraint systems for years. Now we have cruise control, night vision, and lately, forward crash mitigation.

What the future holds

"A likely time line of the future of crash avoidance would be as follows: By 2006 we should see market introduction of the more aggressive crash mitigation systems, which means earlier braking, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, and adaptive headlights. By 2008 we should have a lot more monitoring around the vehicle, including that of typical blind spots, driver-fatigue monitoring of some sort, and forward crash avoidance to automatically activate braking to avoid an accident.

"'Precision parallel parking' will take a little longer to get into U.S. cars because Americans parallel park much less frequently than do the Japanese. These systems will eventually know if you are looking in the rear view mirror when you should be looking forward, and will warn you to change the focus of your attention; it's a matter of knowing where the driver's attention is, and adjusting the warning systems accordingly.

"By 2010 I think we'll see automated 'lane keeping' systems, which are now on the market in Japan. We'll also have more interaction with detailed digital maps, 'intersection collision warning,' and we'll see things, such as roadside communications, blossom. By 2015 intersection collision warnings will be much more sophisticated, as will be in-vehicle warning systems. Pedestrian detection warning is very difficult to develop, especially as used in urban environments, but may be available by then. By 2020 we should be to the point that cars can pretty much drive themselves - automated driving.

"So how does all this affect crash rates? I'm suggesting that by 2015, 50% of new cars sold will have some of these safety systems on them. There presently seems to be no indication that our federal government will mandate these systems, but that could change over the next 20 years. The idea behind all this is to lessen the occurrence of unexpected and traumatic deaths and injuries. All these systems coming together in future autos will create an entirely different landscape when it comes to driving and vehicle operation."

And the business of collision repair!

Dick Strom, Modern Collision Rebuild, 9270 Miller Road, NE, Bainbridge Island, Washington 98110; (206) 842-3621; e-mail: moderncol@aol.com.