BBC News

Clever cars to mean safer driving

By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News

image captionSmarter in-car computer systems could mean emergency services react more quickly

Cars could soon be ringing the emergency services themselves if they are involved in a crash.

Sensors embedded in future vehicles could also let emergency services work out the severity of the crash and how many people were involved.

The predictions came at a symposium considering the changes ushered in by the spread of small, smart processors.

The growing number of on-board computers could also spell big changes for the way people drive.

"The car is probably going to be the most compute-intensive possession that we will have," said Steve Wainwright, European manager at Freescale Semiconductor which makes many of the chips inside car control systems.

Mr Wainwright said average cars have 25-30 electronic control units onboard already and high-end cars probably carry up to 80. These tiny computers are in charge of many car systems such as stability control, power distribution, safety and many others.

Increasingly, said Mr Wainwright, they are helping to augment a person's driving skill and that trend would only continue as technologies such as collision detection systems and radar become more commonplace.

"All of us who feel we are better drivers now than we were 10 years ago, that's probably because we are getting more help then we realise," he said at the Future World Sympoisum, a conference organised by the UK's National Microelectronics Institute.

Quick response

Paul Burnley, an analyst from automotive market research firm SBD, said cars in the future would be among the first to react after a crash. They might send data about their location and the number of occupants in a car to get the emergency services responding much more quickly.

"More advanced systems will be capable of sending data from distributed sensors in the car to the emergency services," he said.

"Perhaps letting them analyse this and build a profile of the crash and evaluate the risk of serious injury to the occupants."

Clever in-car systems would be essential as the world moves from petrol-driven cars to hybrid and electric vehicles, he said.

"The 'hop in the car and drive where you want' mentality is not one we can carry forward to electric vehicles," he said. "Fears about range anxiety and charging infrastructure are starting to dominate discussions about such vehicles."

Only with sensors that can accurately determine the distance a car can travel given the charge in its batteries and know the location of the nearest charging station, will the move to electric vehicles be more palatable, he said.

Safer roads

Mr Wainwright from Freescale believed that the growing unification of cars and computers had the potential to make driving safer and greener.

Already, he said, the US has set aside radio spectrum for car-to-car communication systems suggesting that the future will see more inter-vehicular chatter about road conditions. Europe is also considering which radio frequency to use for this communication.

The opening up of this communications channel could pave the way for so-called "platooning" of cars on motorways in which convoys of vehicles are electronically linked and travel together.

National Integrated Transport Systems (ITS) that have the ability to gather cars into platoons, dictate routes and keep high density traffic in cities moving much faster were starting to emerge, said Mr Wainwright.

image captionSmart transport systems could raise average speeds in cities and on motorways

Research suggests that increasing the average speed of vehicles in cities from 20km/h to 30km/h could save about 1.9 billion hours globally, he said.

"If you think about what you can do with smart routing and dynamic routing if you have a good ITS, it absolutely makes anything that you can do on engine management completely pale into insignificance," he said, "The benefits you can get there are enormous."

However, he said, the hurdle to getting such systems up and working had little to do with technology.

"The key issues are clearly not technology but social," he said, "It's the freedom of the open road versus what would it take to have your route pre-determined for you, or some level of control taken away."

ITS could make driving much safer and cut the number of deaths on the road from the current total of 50 per week in the UK, said Mr Wainwright, but only if there was the political will to bring the system in.

"This is a liberties question," he said.

"Do you want to be able to have the right to drive completely irresponsibly, potentially kill people and waste resource?" he asked. "Well, it seems we do. We seem to think that is more important than killing people."

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