The automotive industry has traditionally focused on minimising the effects of accidents when they occur, using technologies such as ABS, inflatable airbags and car crumple zones.
But now mechanical engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are looking at preventing accidents happening in the first place.
To do this, they’ve developed an intelligent ‘co-pilot’ for your car that’s ready to provide ‘emergency assistance’.
But this is no annoying back seat driver, all too ready to offer advice, rather the co-pilot takes very much a ‘hands off’ approach until it senses that a vehicle is heading for trouble. Maybe the driver is taking the wrong line into a corner, or a car is stopping too sharply in front, or there is an obstacle in the road that needs to be avoided.
Only then does the system kick in, temporarily taking control of the steering and applying the brakes so that collisions are avoided.
The technology involved uses an on-board camera and a laser range-finder to constantly scan the road environment ahead to check for potential hazards. The data gathered is then processed along with other information about the driver's performance, the car's speed, its stability and any other physical characteristics about relevant road conditions. This enables the co-pilot to create what it considers to be a ‘safe driving corridor’ ahead, down which it expects the car to navigate.
It’s only when the vehicle strays from this corridor that the co-pilot steps this.
When it does, for the driver not much changes - it is just as if, for a split second, they have become a highly skilled car handler, able to get themselves out of trouble.
But while the system will be a real bonus for more experienced drivers, the co-pilot is probably better left switched off by learners, who need the negative feedback they get from their driving mistakes, if they are to fully develop their skills at the wheel.
Of course, there are other approaches being taken to the issue of accident prevention that involve a more ‘total control approach’, where the driver becomes a passenger in their own car. But the technologies to make this happen need much greater development before being close to a practical reality. They must also overcome the psychological resistance of human beings to handing their lives over completely to a machine.
However, that isn’t an insurmountable obstacle, as every day the pilots of thousands of passenger aircraft hand over control to an automatic pilot, though unlike the MIT co-pilot, it’s the human pilot that generally takes back control when an emergency happens.
In any event, it’s still early days for the Massachusetts engineers’ project, so it will be a little while yet before the system’s commercial introduction into the mainstream automotive market.
But, with the potential ability for it to significantly reduce the number of road deaths and injuries on our roads each day, it seems likely that more and more mechanical engineering jobs will focus on such innovative automotive technologies, not just in the US, but also here in the UK.