Paul Hutton sets out to identify what’s real and what’s fanciful in the smart safety solutions sector by talking to five experts from different parts of the industry with a real interest in ITS
Everything’s “smart” these days – our phones, the meters which monitor our energy use, our televisions and now our vehicles and infrastructure. It’s all due to the rapid improvement in communications that allow data to be shared real-time.
When it comes to road safety, we’re constantly bombarded by so many predictions and new technology announcements that it becomes difficult to differentiate between fact and fantasy, the present and the future.
Firstly, we need some definitions of what exactly “smart safety” is all about.
“For me a smart safety system is one that helps a driver to get to their destination effectively, and unobtrusively guides them and ensures they reach their destination without any undue problem” says Nick Reed, the Principle Human Factors researcher at TRL.
For Vitronic’s Sales Director Daniel Scholz, it’s about flexibility: “From our point of view a smart safety system is a system that is flexible in the way you can use it in the locations where you can use it and also in the traffic violation scenarios that you can enforce,” he says. “That means that for the product that we have – we have speed enforcement products, red light enforcement and beside that there are also other traffic violations that we can or will be able to enforce in the future, this includes for example weigh-in-motion scenarios, section speed control and what we think is a smart safety system is a system which allows the authority or Police to enforce a whole range of different traffic contraventions.”
John Chipperfield, chief technology office for Swarco, defines a smart system is one which takes full advantage of technology: “I believe that smart is microprocessors, better use of data, interconnection of systems and communication to the travelling public.”
And Nick recognises the key fact that “smart” doesn’t depend on location. “A smart safety system could be something that has a guidance from infrastructure, or it could be vehicle-based,” he says. “What we’re seeing now is more and more progression in vehicle-based systems as we move towards semi-autonomous and eventually fully-autonomous vehicles but it’s likely that infrastructure will play a role in supporting those systems as well.”
But what about the in-vehicle systems? Iain Levy is Director of Business Development at ADAS manufacturer Mobileye: “Today we work with about 85 to 90 per cent of the vehicle manufacturers around the world using our technology to integrate into their system and then provide them with the highest level of ADAS in the market today” he explains. “As well as that, we’ve developed an after-market product that can be retro-fitted into any vehicle and provides the same level of technology that we provide to the top-level vehicle manufacturers. The system provides life-saving technology such as forward collision warning, alerting the driver when there’s a vehicle in front and there’s an imminent collision, lane departure warning and lane keeping when you go outside your lane without using your turn signal, unintentionally. As well as that with the after-market system we’re able to provide a safety apparatus called headway monitoring warning and what this is, is it measures the time to the vehicle in front of you to promote to the driver keeping a safe distance and ensure that we prevent the collision happening well before it is imminent.”
And Nick Reed agrees that in terms of safety, this approach is where the real improvements will come from: “Where we are now is starting to be diminishing returns from the traditional approaches. And if we look at the accident statistics we see that human error is a contributory factor in probably more than 90 per cent of collisions on the road. And if we can start to address that, if we can start to look at ways in which we can reduce the risk of humans making errors, whilst driving we might get to reduce those casualty figures even further.”
For Iain Levy, one of his selling points is the relatively simple interactivity his system has with the roadside: “We have what we call traffic side recognition, now this is where we can actually read the traffic signs for instance speed limit signs and send the driver a warning if they are going over the speed limit. Now unlike a GPS system where this has to be pre-mapped, we actually read the speed limit sign and therefore can send the driver a warning if they are going over that speed limit and it’s accurate for that actual road rather than any kind of pre-mapping.”
Now let’s meet Guy Fraker, the Chief Learning Officer at a company called AutonomouStuff and also the CEO of the shared-mobility software company Get To Kno to put the importance of the subject into perspective: “Ever since the vehicle hit the road a hundred years ago the safety of the vehicles has all been largely dependent on human capability and at a very basic level humans can only see one direction at a time,” he says. “With the autonomous control systems you have essentially 360 degree view, a 360 degree perception of what’s going on inside and outside of the vehicle and the car can augment that human error and human judgement and prevent probably 85 to 95 per cent of all crashes.” This is vital, he says, to arrest a massive human tragedy. “Right now we’re losing about 1.2m citizens a year globally on the roadways. We’ve repeated the fatality count of the Second World War twice since the war ended through car accidents and with the computer capabilities that we can connect these technologies to, the vehicle is capable of making judgements, preventing human error and preventing these horrible losses from taking place.”
That’s a subject we’ll come back to, but, as Vitronic’s Daniel Scholz says, at present most vehicles on the road have few, if any, smart solutions on board, so it’s important to maximise the quality of roadside solutions. “The networking of the system is an important feature which adds a lot of “smart” to these systems, because we see a lot of movement in the sector towards more and more networked solutions. The enforcement system, be it speed enforcement or red light is no longer sitting alone somewhere on the street and from time to time somebody stops by and gets the data from it, or even the wet film if you look back more than 10 years. Today these systems are more or less all connected to a central operations centre, to a central enforcement centre, therefore the authority can directly use the violations that are produced and has also a very good view on the status of the whole system and the status of the road safety situation.”
John Chipperfield agrees that technology need not only be used for sending out tickets, but is vital for real-time, “Swarco is a full-line traffic product systems and service provider. So we do everything from traffic lights, which is certainly not smart, up to full Urban Traffic Control systems where we’re using adaptive traffic control algorithms which I do believe is an application of smart technology,” he says. “On the freeways, things like adaptive speed control are another very good example of smart safety solutions – slowing down the traffic as the volumes increase, using the overhead gantries, using information to the motorist, that’s how I see smart technology and that’s a great application from Swarco.”
And he adds that technology continues to improve: “The area where this is improving with smart traffic solutions is we can now get data about what’s happening on the motorway not just from the fixed detectors which we’ve used in the past but from other new technologies like video, like Bluetooth and indeed from the vehicles themselves using cooperative systems.”
Daniel reckons that by having a real-time view of the situation it’s possible to make even better influences on the traffic behaviour. “So that means when we talk about, for example, section speed control situations an authority is able to set, by other traffic management systems like variable speed signs, set the speed limit applicable to the current traffic situation and by connecting the section speed control or even the spot speed system to this variable speed limit you can ensure that this speed limit is also obeyed by this traffic,” Vitronic’s expert explains. “This makes the overall traffic smoother and improves the traffic safety.”
Another way to improve safety, according to Iain Levy, is to help the driver spot moving obstacles outside the car, “25 per cent of fatalities on the road are what we call vulnerable road users, they are bicycles and pedestrians. Protecting these people is really an important part of our technology,” he says. “One of the biggest draw cards of the mobileye technology, and where we see is what we call pedestrian detection. This is actually pedestrian and bicycle detection where we send the driver a warning that there is an imminent collision with a pedestrian or bicycle rider. Now this is very important technology where we’re actually able to identify a pedestrian on the road and rather than having false warnings of poles of anything of those sorts we can actually identify what a pedestrian is.”
It’s not just the potentially unpredictable behaviour of those outside the car that needs addressing. Drivers themselves can very much vary in their performance depending on their mood, the familiarity with their surroundings, how tired they are, or dare we say, how much they’ve had to drink.
Nick Reed believes letting the car take more of the decisions has a massive effect on safety standards, “Looking at the accident statistics we know that alcohol and fatigue still play a big part in causation of collisions on the road, and fatalities,” he explains. “If vehicle automation can help reduce the impact of those so that the vehicle will support the driver and help to avoid collisions occurring in the first place, whether they’re impaired by alcohol, by fatigue or a driver wants to engage in an alternative task. We’re all very time-pressured these days, smart phone use is ever increasing, the automation might allow a driver to engage in secondary tasks and use their smart phone whilst the vehicle takes care of the less exciting parts of driving, so in a traffic jam or on a monotonous highway journey that time becomes productive, useful and the vehicle takes care of the travelling.”
Guy Fraker thinks there’s even more safety-related opportunity to let a driver’s car, effectively, become an ambulance: “What often happens with people who are impaired for whatever reason is that when they pass out or drop consciousness behind the wheel, their car continues to move, now totally uncontrolled very often crossing the centre line and causing a head-on collision. We have the capability – I know two auto manufacturers now who have developed prototypes where if somebody does just suddenly become unconscious the vehicle recognises it, the vehicle can reroute the person to an emergency room and the vehicle can take the person and can call the hospital ahead of time and tell that the person’s on the way, so that they can meet them outside. Well we’re going to have to set some lifestyle questions like alcohol or drug use aside and understand that yes these vehicles will enable some of those behaviours but they’re replacing the inability to be safe with the capability to be safe.
And Nick and Guy both think that autonomous vehicles do not only improve safety, but inclusiveness too: “The introduction of vehicle automation may help drivers who’ve had difficulties in, or had to stop driving. The less-able and older drivers may be able to gain access again to independent mobility that may benefit them socially, might benefit their access to healthcare and just greatly increase their quality of life,” explains Nick, while Guy’s interest is very close to home:
“Back in 2009 I thought I had a pretty good handle on the pace at which these technologies were evolving and it was my son who was 25 at the time, who’s autistic, brought me his laptop to show me the first New York Times video clips of the Google Car. I said “well Patrick, what do you think?” and he said “Dad, it means I get to own a car someday. I realised that he was seeing potential for up to 15 per cent of the US and European adult households could suddenly be independent contributors to society with safe, on-demand autonomous transportation.”