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June 10, 2004

New item: a lane-drift warning signal

From: Worrall Community Newspapers, NJ - Jun 10, 2004

By: Mark Maynard , Copley News Service

The next time you are tooling along the freeway and glance down to answer a cell phone or dig through the console for a CD, consider this bit of information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

More than 43 percent of all fatal accidents reported in 2001 involved a vehicle drifting out of its lane or off the road.

That so-called "unintended lane departure" is the single-largest cause of automotive highway fatalities in the United States, the administration reports.

Even the most conscientious of us hands-on-the-wheel drivers can admit to unintentionally edging across the white line. Keeping up with the flow of heavy traffic requires due diligence, and even then another set of eyes would help.

That extra set of eyes will be possible soon, says Francis Memole, vice president of Iteris, which is about two years from launching its AutoVue Lane Departure Warning System.

The simple, electronic eye-type monitoring system will be offered as an option by an as-yet unannounced automaker, Memole says.

The system already is used in Europe by trucking and bus companies, and the demand is increasing, he says.

The electronic watchdog is a small, integrated unit that packages a camera, onboard computer and software. The compact design can be attached to the windshield behind the rearview mirror, dashboard or in the rear of an overhead console.

On the road, the AutoVue camera tracks visible lane markings, white or yellow striping, and feeds the information to the computer. The software then combines the picture data with vehicle speed and steering inputs.

Using image-recognition software, the computer can predict when a vehicle begins to drift toward an unintended lane change.

An electronic buzz imitating the sound of tires on a rumble strip alerts when a lane has been crossed without using a turn signal.

Two small speakers are mounted at the base of the front-seat backs. Drifting across the left-lane markings triggers the left speaker, and moving right sets off the passenger-side alert.

At night, the camera works from headlights, aimed 12 to 30 feet in front of the car. The company also is working to develop a seat vibrator alert, which would be especially useful for hearing-impaired drivers.

An unintended side benefit of AutoVue is that it encourages drivers to use the turn signals. If not, the system fires off an alert.

The system is simple and inexpensive to produce. The camera is of the type used in a child's toy, and the computer processor is of that used in a PDA. Using these types of available components will also keep the price down. What could be promoted as high technology and priced at $2,000 will more likely be offered for around $500, Memole says.

"Technology itself won't sell. It has to be affordable," he says.

While a recent road test of the device proved fully functional, the parameters for alerts are up to the safety standards of the manufacturer, and those can take time to establish, he says.

"Large SUVs, such as Suburbans, are wide and more sensitive to crossing lanes," Memole says, "so the manufacturer may choose to set the alert to sound a couple of inches from the white line to allow plenty of time to correct. Smaller cars could be programmed for the outside of the line."

Driving home from the interview in a vehicle without AutoVue, I noted the absence of the prompts and felt somewhat exposed to potential danger. Unlike air bags that are painful reminders of their safety insurance, AutoVue could be an ounce of prevention that might someday be standard on all passenger vehicles.

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©Worrall Community Newspapers Inc 2004