HAL in the driver’s seat: NHTSA hopes automation can prevent car crashes

V2V-equipped carsTechnology can do amazing things, but can it save us from ourselves? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hopes that it can do exactly that. The NHTSA recently started a series of research projects on automated systems that could compensate for a driver’s mistakes or inattention, and thus prevent car crashes.

The newest concept the NHTSA is testing is vehicle-to-vehicle communication; the boffins call it V2V. These systems could monitor the location of other vehicles, and warn their drivers of an imminent collision. V2V could, for example, alert a driver when another car runs a red light or changes lanes. The NHTSA will test the system on 3,000 vehicles this summer. It will be looking at system performance, as well as how drivers react to the presence of V2V and its warnings.

Some consumer feedback might be helpful in the case of brake-override systems. These systems cut the throttle when the brake pedal is depressed, and are meant to prevent unintended acceleration. This recently became an issue when stuck floor mats triggered a massive recall of Toyotas in 2010.

A few new cars, such as the 2013 Subaru Legacy, already have this feature, but it is far from common. Still, the NHTSA recently proposed making brake-override mandatory on all cars. The agency made a similar proposal during the Audi 5000 unintended acceleration scare, which led to mandatory shift-interlock devices for automatic transmission-equipped cars. That’s why you can’t shift your automatic without having one foot on the brake.

The NHTSA may have recently proposed a ban on cell phone use in moving vehicles, but drunk driving is still an important priority for the agency. Technology is being deployed to stop what cheesy driver’s ed films cannot. The NHTSA is readying a prototype Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) for testing by the end of next year. This system would prevent the engine from starting if the driver’s blood-alcohol content was 0.08 percent (the legal limit in most jurisdictions) or higher. To read a driver’s blood-alcohol content, DADSS would use a breathalyzer or touch system, which could measure alcohol concentration in the skin. The NHTSA hopes to make DADSS standard on new cars in eight to ten years.

Recently, the NHTSA has taken a strong stand against distracted driving. Last year, the agency recommended a ban on cell phones, even ones that could be used hands-free while driving. It also issued anti-distraction guidelines for manufacturers of in-car electronics. Those ideas proved pretty unpopular with car companies and consumers, so perhaps the NHTSA is trying to work around the problem of people.

Could automated systems really override a driver’s bad judgment? A car with V2V would definitely be paying more attention than a texting driver, and brake-override would prevent the driver from making the situation worse when they panic. Thirty-one percent of fatal crashes in 2010 (the most recent year with complete data) involved alcohol, so apparently not everyone has gotten the message about DUI. However, good intentions don’t always equal good outcomes. After all, if our cars are better drivers than we are, why should we drive at all?