Recent innovations in automotive engineering have produced active safety systems ranging from side alert, often called blind spot warning, to adaptive cruise control, to collision detection and warning. What this means to the average consumer will change over time as these products become increasingly available. What this means to the automotive engineer is increased attention to safe technology.
Many impressive innovations beyond the now customary car navigation system have existed – and even been on the market – for years now. Adaptive cruise control has been available since the early ’90s. Electronic stability control has been an option for many vehicles since 1995. Scanning radars, crash sensors, pre-crash mitigation and vehicle and occupant safety systems are also emerging. Such systems offer insights into how roads can be made safer in generations to come and where automotive technology is heading. In other words, as cars become “carputers,” automotive engineers are driving shifting technologies.
The myriad of promising innovations includes vehicle occupant safety systems. For example, a crash sensor generates a signal based upon a potential crash or one already transpired via a continuously variable severity output signal. If an accident has occurred, sensors signal certain actions like deployment of airbags. If an accident is likely to occur, sensors can alert the driver in various ways so that she or he can try to take necessary actions to avoid an accident and/or the sensors can take action themselves by pretensioning seatbelts or initiating automatic braking. In many ways, this process is not dissimilar to the functioning of the human brain: The brain sends a signal to the body to complete an action, often in response to stimuli received from the outside world. Who knew humanity would serve as its own model for creating devices designed for our safety?
Often, though, such examples of automotive technology are integrated into high-end, expensive cars first, due to high pricing. As the benefits of these products become more widely known and their popularity expands, costs decrease due to economies of scale and advancing technology. As research and development pay off, these advanced products become more widely distributed. The advantages of automotive system and component integration expertise will continue to increase over time. Such knowledge may be paramount to an industry focused on better fuel economy, safety advancements and financially feasible products. Engineers versed in not only the basics of these systems but also in how to integrate them is only the beginning. Savvy engineers who are engaging in up-integration – adding software that makes one electronic module do many things – and sensor fusion – using complementary technologies to enhance object detection and classification – may have an edge in an ever-competitive job market.
In the rush to meet consumer demand and stay competitive, suppliers tend to be increasingly eager to develop ways to integrate safety and other technology systems. Many vehicles currently come with automatic on/off, high/low beam and rain sensor technology for instance. A separate camera, of course, is not necessary for this. Install a camera for a lane departure warning system, and suddenly a world of possibilities opens up. Intelligent headlight plus pedestrian and sign recognition programs can also be added, to name a few, without the need for additional cameras. Separate module manufacturing for each technological innovation becomes unnecessary. Multiple functions and features on the same apparatus decrease cost and increase functionality.
So, what’s next? It seems to be the perpetual question that automotive engineers ask – no matter how far we advance. Perhaps an entirely self-driving car. Perhaps hover vehicles on highways, following designated pathways and communicating with surrounding vehicles to avoid crashes. What do consumers want? The evolution of technology. Inventions born of new ideas. And, ultimately, innovative products that can even make us all safer. It’s the engineers, though – the technological innovators themselves – who make it possible.