2011 Brakes, Camera, Action - pedestrian-detection & automated platooning
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Avoiding hitting pedestrians used to be a responsibility shouldered solely by drivers and pedestrians … but from now on, cars will shoulder increasing responsibility in this domain.

The big questions are: Where will this technology lead, and right now, exactly how motivated are car buyers to spend extra dollars to protect pedestrians? The grim ‘us and them’ mentality that prevails on the road will probably mean car manufacturers Volvo and Subaru will combine their pedestrian-protection technology with other features that are of direct benefit to those inside the car – systems that use much of the same hardware, like adaptive cruise control.

Volvo got there first when it added pedestrian-detection software to its camera- and radar-based City Safety system – which debuted with pedestrian-protection capability on the 2010 S60 sedan.

Subaru will be the second car maker out of the blocks in this race, with pedestrian-detection technology linked to auto-braking thanks to a recent upgrade to its 2008 EyeSight camera-based system. Mercedes-Benz is also thought to be working on its own advanced pedestrian-detection system.

The pedestrian-protecting Subaru EyeSight system will be available in Japan shortly, and will launch in the UK later this year. Unfortunately, despite a demonstration event at Sydney’s Eastern Creek Raceway this month, the system won’t be available to car buyers here until next year.

Both the Volvo and Subaru systems use high-resolution camera images to identify pedestrians (the identification is done by software: an onboard computer that looks at the geometry and motion of parts of the image with sufficient clarity to say, in binary, “yep, there’s a pedestrian moving into the wrong place”). If the path of the pedestrian looks iffy, and if the driver does nothing, an auto-braking system takes over. Think: Autonomous brake assist technology.

There are limitations, however. Thirty kilometers per hour is the upper limit of getting away with goofing off, scott-free. Above that, neither the Volvo or Subaru systems can avoid a crash … but they will still operate to reduce the speed of a subsequent impact. This latter speed-reducing ability is important, even if a pedestrian is struck. Here, slower is a lot better – at 50km/h the risk of killing the pedestrian is 85 per cent higher, compared with being struck at 25km/h.

One key difference between the two manufacturers’ systems is that while both use camera images to ‘see’ the pedestrian, the Volvo uses a radar system behind the grille to measure the distances. The Subaru uses two cameras, one on each side of the rear-vision mirror to afford it stereoscopic vision. It perceives distances in the same way we humans do.

You can just about bet the farm that this is just the start. Night-vision, FLIR (forward-looking infra red) and a whole bunch of stuff previously the domain of the sci-fi and fighter-pilot sets are all just around the corner.

One of those things that’s just around the corner is the outwardly kooky concept of ‘platooning’ – which you’ve probably never heard of, but which is currently under development at Volvo Central in Sweden. And if it comes off, it will be (almost) okay to be asleep at the wheel. Platooning will almost certainly be a reality on roads around the world inside a decade.

How would you feel about sitting in a queue of maybe eight vehicles on the freeway, at the legal speed limit, with all but the first driver goofing off – reading, surfing the web, e-mailing, word-processing or just eating breakfast and watching a DVD – with the front bumpers of each car separated from the rears in the conga line by a mere one metre? That’s what platooning is. At freeway speeds, that separation of one metre means travelling about 40 milliseconds apart – 10 times faster than the blink of an eye. That’s some seriously irresponsible tailgating.

Except maybe it’s not. How would you like it if this were not only legal, but officially encouraged?

Back in February I swapped sweltering humidity in Sydney for a few days of minus 15 degrees C in Sweden to talk to a very bright boy named Jonas Ekmark about exactly this. He didn’t appear to be pulling my leg, but you know the Swedes.

Ekmark has a master’s degree in science and is Volvo’s ‘Active Safety Hub Leader’. He’s working across a range of advanced technologies on this high-speed conga-line/autopilot project, called ‘platooning’, which is being funded by the European Union. He says there will be a working example of platooning technology next year, and it’ll be in use in Europe from 2018.

It works like this: A ‘platoon’ is made up of a lead vehicle – probably a bus or other heavy vehicle driven by a suitably professional driver. Up to six or eight drone vehicles make up the followers. There’s a high-speed wireless data connection between all the vehicles (think: WiFi at 100 kays an hour, and no control-alt-delete option). The WiFi – which will probably be ‘failsafed’ by radar and optical sensors – will make it possible for the lead vehicle to perform an emergency brake application without the subsequent domino effect of rear-end collisions consuming the followers.

The real beauty of platooning is, of course, that you don’t need hi-tech sensors in the roadway for guidance and the massive infrastructure spend that would entail.

So, the benefits: Ekmark says fuel consumption will drop by 20 per cent, thanks to the proximity of the vehicles breaking up the airstream, slashing overall aerodynamic drag. He also claims it will reduce congestion by freeing up plenty of freeway ‘real estate’ normally devoted to the safe separation between individually driven vehicles. Finally, Ekmark says, platooning will be safer than normal driving on freeways – provided professional drivers are used up the pointy end of the platoon.

Speaking of the pointy end, what’s in it for the lead driver? Well, nothing in life is free, and Ekmark envisages a “small toll” being payable – electronically, of course – for the privilege of being chauffered along, remotely.

Joining a platoon will be done from the rear. As you approach, you just hit the ‘begin docking’ button and the car will close up the gap and start steering, accelerating and braking on your behalf. Soon after, you’ll be catching up on all those pesky e-mails all the way to work and half the way home.

Leaving the platoon will mean indicating and departing the lane, whereupon all the remaining vehicles will move up to fill the void left by your departure.

Of course, platooning is a game older vehicles won’t be entitled to play, seeing as they are devoid of radar, high-speed WiFi and remote-control brakes, throttle and steering. Add to this the average age of Australian vehicles – bordering on 10 years – and it’ll be a long time before average Aussies are making like the a ‘hands off’ rolling remake of C.W. McCall’s 1975 smash hit, Convoy.

And there will be caveats, when platooning finally does make it Down Under. “It probably won’t be okay to sleep,” says Ekmark.

City Safety and EyeSight are just the tip of an upcoming hi-tech iceberg.

Video below is a demonstration of platooning but with Volvo Trucks: