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May 01, 2009

New generation of cars are ‘mobile high-tech platforms’

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When considering the term ‘connectivity’, one should not stop at cellphones and laptops. These days, modern vehicles also fit the bill, and it is even possible to use this new-found connectivity to aid and ease traffic patterns.

Intelligent Transport Society of South Africa (ITSSA) CEO Dr Paul Vorster says today’s cars are almost “mobile high-tech platforms”, with a host of sensors that collect data and send messages to the driver.

Examples are speed/cruise control sounding audible warnings if the speed limit is exceeded, or adaptive cruise control where the vehicle will slow down, or stop, automatically once it detects an obstacle.

Another example is in-car global positioning systems (GPSes), which position vehicles on a map and direct drivers on the optimal route towards the destinations.

Vorster says this existing connectivity between the vehicle and the outside world opens endless possibilities for intelligent transport systems (ITSes).

“For example, with connectivity between the GPS-fitted vehicle and the wired world, real-time traffic data can be transmitted to the vehicle to redirect the driver on the basis of what is happening right now on the intended route.”

Already, around 70% of US vehicles feature on-board navigation systems.

In another form of connectivity, vehicles can also transmit messages to roadside equipment.

This allows for electronic toll collection (ETC), where a tag fitted inside the vehicle sends a signal to an ETC reader on a gantry across the road, which then reads the vehicle’s particulars and sends toll-payment instructions to a payment processing centre.

This is likely to become a common site on Gauteng’s refurbished highways when they become toll roads in 2011.

University of Texas Ernest H Cockrell Centennial Chair in Engineering Professor Mike Walton says it would be possible to one day use the same technology to pull in at a roadside McDonald’s and to pay electronically.

“In the future, we’ll see the expansion of this technology to include this capability.”

This type of connectivity also allows for electronic vehicle identification (EVI), where a vehicle is fitted not with a paper disc as its licence – as South African are used to – but with a tamperproof EVI.

“This is similar to the coded pin of a mobile phone, which enables a cellular network to prevent a stolen phone from being used.

“The EVI device sends a signal to a roadside reader, which then checks the vehicle’s particulars against a database of stolen and unlicensed cars,” explains Vorster.

“Some European countries are also deploying ecall systems, whereby a vehicle transmits an emergency signal when it is involved in an accident.

“The signal sends the GPS location of the vehicle to the emergency services.”

Vehicles can also receive messages from roadside equipment, or from other sources – in other words, vehicle-roadside connectivity.

An example is a roadside speed device with an automated number plate reader, which can measure the speed of an approaching vehicle, read the number plate and display the speed and registration number of the offending vehicle on a variable message sign, which tells the specific offending driver that he/she is exceeding the speed limit and should slow down, says Vorster.

A more futuristic example – but something which is already at the demonstration and testing stage – is equipment built into the road infrastructure; when an in-vehicle detector regards the vehicle as being too close to the edge of the road, the equipment emits either an audible warning, or moves the vehicle to the centre of the lane through an automated intervention.

The ultimate aim in terms of intelligent vehicles is a car that cannot crash.

“The car that can’t crash is technologically possible, but while we move towards intelligent cars, we also need to make progress with getting drivers to behave intelligently,” says Vorster.

The car that cannot crash is something that every automotive manufacturer is working towards in varying degrees – but the business case is still very far off, he adds.

“The car that can’t crash is [one] where technology and innovation [are used] to opti- mally counteract possible risk factors. One example is an infrared sensor that can detect pedestrians and animals in the road at a distance much further than the eye can see, thereby assisting the driver in taking evasive action.”

Walton notes that the global vehicle population will grow to one-billion by 2030, up from today’s 730-million units. Also, around 60% of the world’s population will live in cities, up from the roughly 50% today.

“By implementing ITSes such as these, it is possible to get an additional 20% benefit out of existing infrastructure, which will be important in the light of these numbers.”

Walton says: “Tomorrow’s vehicle is the highway sensor of the future.

“We simply do not have enough money to invest in all the infrastructure we need, and we can’t invest in sensors on each and every highway. Rather let the OEMs (vehicle manufacturers) do it; there are already so many sensors in cars.”

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
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