Telematics may help improve safety

  • 12-Jul-2010 09:28 EDT

Navigation systems, such as this example in Chevrolet’s Silverado, may soon regularly interface with safety systems.

As telematics moves toward the mainstream, providers are searching for more ways to bring value. Many are beginning to explore the potential for improving safety.

Telematics can keep drivers from congested areas, warn them when they are driving too fast, or even help electric vehicles extend their range so drivers do not have to worry about being stranded in mountains. One of the keys is that wireless communications can provide up-to-the-minute data from a wide range of sources.

When vehicles can receive instant communications, drivers can be alerted for temporary issues such as road repair. When drivers know roads will be obstructed, they can avoid those areas and reduce the congestion that can lead to accidents.

“Telematics technologies can give drivers a range of input beyond the active safety sensors in the vehicle,” said Jim Nickolaou, Controls and Software Lead Tech Engineer for Active Safety & Autonomous Driving at General Motors. “If there’s a rolling [road surface] patch crew, it can access data on their whereabouts and alert drivers so they can take an alternate route.”

Navigation systems and telematics can also be leveraged to alert drivers that they are going too fast. For example, the system may flash an icon or play a sound to warn drivers they are going too fast when they enter a sharp curve.

“On curves, you may want to have a speed warning,” said Christopher Wilson, Product Management Director for TomTom’s Content Production Unit. “Those data are not in the maps, but we could use data on how people normally drive on that street.”

Over time, maps will become more sophisticated, providing information such as elevation data. That is particularly important for pure electric vehicles, where range anxiety will be a key concern. The vehicle can extend its range by shifting at the bottom of a hill, reducing battery drain, and possibly preventing drivers from being stranded by dead batteries.

“It’s not just routing, elevation is also important,” said Robert Schumacher, General Director of Advanced Product Development & Business Strategy at Delphi Electronics & Safety. “When you’ve got elevation data, you can adjust shifting so electrified powertrains can run more efficiently.”

This tight linkage between telematics, navigation, and powertrains underscores the industry’s drive to link many different systems to improve overall vehicle performance. That is a complex task, involving many different inputs.

“We have 60 different sensors that are all communicating with each other to address the different ways that cars can react to avoid an accident,” said Dan Selke, Supervisor of Active & Passive Safety for Mercedes-Benz. “We can even monitor how drivers are using the steering wheel to determine if they’re drowsy.”

While developers look at ways to get these systems to work together, they have also got to consider costs. Many in the telematics industry feel that leveraging cell phones is the best approach, since it eliminates the cost of installing modems in the vehicle. However, there are concerns that this approach will not be effective for anything that is tied to safety.

“If you forget your phone or its battery dies, the safety system won’t work, so an advanced driver-assistance system can’t rely on a smart phone,” Schumacher said.

When all these new features are added, cognitive overload becomes yet another safety issue. Warnings about unsafe driving conditions can’t startle drivers or take their attention away from mission-critical tasks such as steering.

“Driver distraction is something everyone has to think about,” said Thilo Koslowski, Vice President of Automotive Research at Gartner Inc. For example, a speed alert before a curve shouldn’t cause the driver to look away from the roadway and lose milliseconds for turning.

While safety systems need to alert drivers, they shouldn’t alarm passengers who could add to driver distraction by talking about the alarm. That may be handled by using alerts that only the driver can see or feel.

“A lot of people like vibrating seats because they provide warnings without alarming passengers,” Nickolaou said.

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