New and existing technology offers the opportunity to mitigate the impact of human error on road safety, says Mike Blundell, professor of Vehicle Dynamics and Impact at Coventry University
Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) offer us improvements in mobility, safety and security together with the economical benefits of reduced road traffic congestion and the environmental benefits of reduced carbon emissions. But as we move closer to the realisation of Intelligent Transport Systems in the UK, we must consider not only the rapid advances in technology but also the human factors – how people drive cars and make use of our mass transport systems.
Safety is a key part of this and has been traditionally considered by automotive engineers to have two components – active and passive safety. Passive safety can be considered to encompass aspects of protection (vehicle structure, seat belts, airbags) once an accident has occurred and now involves protecting not only the vehicle occupants but also vulnerable pedestrian road users. Active safety can be considered to include the pre-crash phase and encompasses design features that assist the driver to avoid the accident occurring or to mitigate the consequences if the accident becomes unavoidable. It is in this area where Intelligent Transport Systems can contribute, as vehicles are designed to assist driver control and process information from the surrounding infrastructure.
The human factor
With modern developments in automotive engineering high standards of reliability mean that the overwhelming majority of road traffic accidents are caused by human error rather than mechanical failure. As with all areas of automotive technology vehicle dynamics performance continues to improve, yet loss of control and a consequent accident is often down to driver capability.
On the proving ground vehicles are driven to their limits by experienced development drivers every day. On the roads the average driver only finds themselves in that position in a critical situation, often for the first time, and without regular exposure or experience of limit driving is usually unable to exploit the full capability of the vehicle and react fast enough to recover the situation.
Studies with simulators in this area are increasingly useful as it has already been found that in general most of us cannot use the full braking capability of a vehicle in emergency situations. Average drivers are simply unable to react fast or brake hard enough to utilise 100 per cent of the vehicle’s stopping capacity. Smarter systems within the car could help to mitigate the impact of a potential collision situation by supporting the driver to apply the full capability of the brakes, reducing stopping distances in a safe and secure way.
Ironically as we look to develop intervention systems that can overcome human limitations and assist drivers in braking or steering a vehicle, it may be useful to better understand the human driving processes of expert drivers, such as those in motorsport, to develop our electronic driver models.
Sensor technology currently used in some cars to alert the driver to the distance away from a solid object when parking or adjacent vehicles whilst driving can be developed to look at alerting drivers to other hazards whilst driving, for example a pedestrian in the road. This sensor could then trigger an override of vehicle control and either put on the brakes or steer the car away from the hazard. Taking steering control of the vehicle will remain a long-term and probably contentious challenge but clearly any steering intervention system would not only need to sense the vehicle, pedestrian or obstacle being avoided but also all the local surrounding infrastructure and road users.
We may be some way off completely autonomous cars, controlled by data flow from the wider transport system and the environment of the world around the vehicle, however, there are a few areas in which intelligent systems can help to improve road safety and in fact the new technologies that are developed to improve active safety will provide additional benefits in improved environmental performance. An example of this is the European SARTRE research project, which looks at road trains and investigates the concept of exploiting advanced sensing in the car to join a road train, possibly led by a bus or a truck. This technology provides the potential to not only reduce accidents but also to reduce the overall aerodynamic drag on the vehicles within the road train.
Looking at smart solutions across the wider transport network can also work to reduce the likelihood of traffic collisions. Capturing real-time data of traffic flow, road works, weather conditions and other influencing factors can help network managers identify scenarios of increased risk and allow them to put in place management techniques to reduce the risk of accidents. For example temporarily lowering the speed limit or re-routing traffic out of congested areas to improve traffic flow.
BMW is already undertaking research work using data from city traffic lights in Munich to provide drivers with information to manage their speed to continue to follow on traffic lights on green. As the percentage of the world’s population living in cities continues to grow clearly using Intelligent Transport Systems to manage traffic flow and congestion can add benefits particularly for the growing numbers of electric vehicles where crawling across a city, possibly using a heater in cold weather will run down the batteries.
The development of car to car communication systems is already underway and big improvements in safety will be available when cars communicate with each other and the infrastructure. An example of this, that is not too difficult to imagine, is for cars in traffic ahead to automatically communicate with those behind warning them of an unexpected situation, such as an accident or local adverse road conditions such as black ice.
Tyres are a critical component in vehicle control and safety. New vehicles are being developed with Tyre Pressure Monitoring Systems (TPMS) to provide information to drivers warning them of incorrect tyre pressures driven by the low carbon agenda and the need to reduce tyre rolling resistance. The concept is being extended to record even more information from the tyre, such as the state of tyre wear. In the first instance such systems can be used to inform the driver. In the longer term such information may be used together with event recording to monitor dangerous or irresponsible vehicle usage.
Compatibility, or the crash performance of smaller vehicles with larger vehicles is also likely to become more of an issue as we come to the stage where we start to see an increasing number of extremely lightweight low carbon vehicles on the roads, alongside much heavier traditional vehicles and HGVs.
The growing use of current automotive warning or systems that maintain distance between vehicles, whether in the same or adjacent lanes may combine with intelligent management of the road networks to help manage the separation between vehicles. But as traffic accidents continue to occur, being able to provide emergency services with as much information as possible en route to the accident scene will be increasingly valuable. Systems which, for example, could utilise information recorded on the vehicle such as a crash pulse combined with information about occupants, such as age or pre-existing medical conditions could provide paramedics with advanced knowledge before arriving and attending to injured vehicle occupants.
Future systems could also start to monitor physiological conditions of the driver. For example, a system has been designed for eye-movement detection. Based on this information the system can provide a warning to a driver when a driver is tired. This information can also be utilised in order to reduce vehicle speed or to stop if a driver does not react according to the system's warning.
While the low carbon agenda remains a driving force in automotive engineering and Intelligent Transport Systems we must not lose sight of the importance of safety and the opportunities to improve this that will be made available to us in the coming decades. To put it in context – Road Traffic Accidents (RTAs) remains amongst the top ten cause of death to the human population and despite improvements in technology and protection ever increasing road usage mans that overall statistics for injury and death amongst road users has remained largely constant.
In automotive safety a comparison can be made with air travel. Clearly automotive usage is much higher but a rough comparison would be to say that every day in Europe the number of people who die on our roads would be about the same number for air travel if a regional aircraft was to crash in Europe every day of the year.
Volvo, a car company traditionally associated with safety, has already stated a long-term vision that cars should not crash and an ambition by 2020 that no one should be killed or injured in a new Volvo with recognition that future emphasis will be on crash avoidance and driver assistance in critical situations.
Development of new and existing technology offers us the opportunity to mitigate the impact of human error on road safety and through implementation of Intelligent Transport Systems across the board it is a very real ambition that by the middle of the century road traffic collisions could be all but obsolete. Much of this technology is already out there, but it is how we develop and implement this technology and how it is managed across wider transport systems that is a key priority.
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