Germany-based Continental Automotive Systems showed off some of the technology, and its view of the near future, in a "Safely There" mobile exhibit at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Continental promises that cars will be able to warn each other about hazards in a new-age variation on the way truckers use citizen band radios to spread word of trouble on roads. "The technology is there," Curtis McMullen said as he ticked off the innovations being displayed by Continental in a parking lot of the Las Vegas Convention Center. "It is only limited by what engineering staff can apply and tweak for vehicles."
Nearby was a Chevrolet Tahoe that Carnegie Mellon University students had converted into a self-driving vehicle that won the U.S. defense department's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Urban Challenge in November. To triumph, the SUV had to maneuver without a driver along city streets and weave safely through traffic, and parallel park at one point. Continental is a supplier to General Motors, which backed the Carnegie Mellon team. "We are a decade out from having a car that drives itself," Carnegie Mellon director of technology Chris Urmson said while giving people a glimpse at the computer hardware packed into the Tahoe's passenger compartment. "We want to make it so you can get in to go to work, read the paper, drink your coffee and get there safely."
Urmson referred to smart cars as "autono-vehicles," a variation on autonomous vehicles. Continental's exhibit features cars that use radar to sense if traffic ahead is stopped or sluggish, then automatically apply the brakes to avoid rear-end collisions. An Electronic Stability Control system can individually adjust the brakes on each wheel to slow cars and better position them in fast turns or on slick or icy roads. "It can actually slow you down if you are driving beyond the vehicle's capabilities to keep you in control," McMullen said.
Sensors mounted on sides of vehicles can signal whether rolling over is imminent and then adjust speeds to avoid flipping. Sleeping drivers can be awakened by "lane departure systems" that sound alerts or vibrate car seats. If crashing is inevitable, cars can automatically close windows to prevent limbs from dangling and adjust seats to maximize effectiveness of air bags.
Systems referred to as "telematics" are being developed to enable cars to tell each other about road hazards. Telematics will also let ambulances, police cars and fire trucks on emergency missions alert cars to their approaches. "We will eventually get to the point where one vehicle is talking to another about what is happening on the road," McMullen said. "It's usually a split second of inattention that causes accidents. This lets the car pay attention when you aren't."
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2008