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Is it possible to build accident-free cars?

07 Nov 2014  | Junko Yoshida

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Editor's Note: In this article, chief international correspondent Junko Yoshida tackles the myriad ADAS applications already enabled by automotive vision technologies and discusses the challenges ahead.

I've often thought of driver assistance systems as high-end "fancy features"—more convenient than necessary. Can a case be made?

In a recent interview with EE Times, Freescale Semiconductor's CEO Gregg Lowe talked about "cars that won't get into accidents." He said, "Imagine you have a 16-year-old who has just begun driving. I think people will pay more for a car that is nearly impossible to get into an accident."

Suddenly, it hit me.

Obviously, safety's important. But I keep thinking that automakers are overplaying the safety card, as a ploy to mothball older, "unsafe" jalopies and jack up sales of next-generation models with advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) features and lots of new semiconductors inside.

Another definition of many ADAS add-ons might just read as "fancy features used in high-end cars that might be convenient—if they work correctly—but which drivers might not need as long as they stay alert and practise safe, defensive driving."

Colour me sceptical.

But when I heard Lowe talking of ADAS—in absolute terms—as something that makes anyone's driving safe, I suspended my disbelief long enough to consider the proposition. Can we get to a point where we can honestly describe an ADAS-equipped car as "accident free"?

Some of the discussions I've recently had with vision technology experts reveal how far ADAS technologies have actually come.

Lane departure warning

Lane departure warning (Source: BMW)

Many ADAS features today, in fact, are much more advanced than the semi-autopilot features touted by Tesla's newly unveiled all-wheel-drive Model S.

Lane-departure warnings and automatic lane changes are rapidly becoming commonplace among high-end cars. Tesla's Model S is actually playing catch-up here. Tesla also claims the Model S can read speed-limit signs and adjust to match the posted speed.

But even this trick isn't exactly a groundbreaker. Jeff Bier, founder of the Embedded Vision Alliance, explained that after all, to read road signs—which are consistently positioned and don't move—are "relatively easy" for computer vision to spot. Harder to recognise is "a spectrum of things that are not uniform," he added. Pedestrians, animals and mattresses flying off car roofs tend to appear unexpectedly at different speeds.

A host of technologies—radars, lidar, ultra sound, infrared and vision sensors—now integrated into automotive technology protect cars and passengers from accidents.

Are they perfect?

Many of them actually work darn well, according to automakers.

Consider Texas Instruments' recently announced ADAS processors called TDA3x. The purpose-built SoCs for automotive vision support ADAS algorithms such as lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control, traffic sign recognition, pedestrian and object detection, forward collision warning, and back-over prevention.

Automakers trust what those vision SoCs see and recognise enough, so that those processors are designed to not just warn the driver of imminent danger, but to avoid accidents by taking control of the vehicle, activating such functions as auto-braking and auto-steering.

 What TI's TDA3x SoC can do for ADAS

What TI's TDA3x SoC can do for ADAS (Source: Texas Instruments)

As with any technology, though, ADAS has elements that still need to be improved—in accuracy, speed, power consumption and cost.


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