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Tech Talk:Car cameras at core of many new safety features

Published August 7, 2013

It’s not that long ago that backup cameras were considered an exotic option in cars. Now, they seem almost primitive compared to the complex camera systems used for various safety and convenience features.

Some new cars and trucks are now able to maintain their driving lane, speed up and slow down, stop and even park by themselves. Camera systems are at the core of many of these features.

One of the first camera-based safety features was a Night Vision system introduced by General Motors on the 2000 Cadillac Deville. It used an infrared camera to identify heat sources, such as people and animals, and display them on a heads-up display.

Although GM subsequently dropped the option, other manufacturers adopted the technology and it’s still available in several vehicles.

So is a pedestrian and animal alert system, using conventional cameras and software, that can identify the specific nature of the images. A new variation on that theme, developed by Volvo, can even distinguish bicyclists from pedestrians.

Cameras, as well as radar sensors, are used in some applications to identify adjacent vehicles and alert the driver via blind-spot warning systems. Honda’s LaneWatch takes a slightly different tack, by displaying an image from a wide-angle camera in the passenger-side mirror on a central video screen.

The role of the backup camera has been expanded in some cases to incorporate a cross-traffic alert system, usually assisted by radar sensors.

Ford has taken it a step further in police-car applications, by adding a surveillance function that signals officers of a potential threat from behind when the vehicle is stopped and a person crosses into the camera’s viewing range.

Some manufacturers, including Infiniti and Mercedes-Benz, offer 360-degree camera views to make the driver aware of any hidden hazards in the surrounding areas.

Such cameras are also used by several automakers in their automatic parking systems. They enable the car to not only identify a vacant parking space but to maneuvre into it with little or no input from the driver.

Cameras are also used to trigger lane-departure warnings and, in the case of some Ford and Mercedes-Benz models, to initiate steering feedback or input that keeps the vehicle in the lane. The Mercedes’ system also corrects for the effect of cross-winds.

Mercedes’ new 2014 S-Class adds to those functions a stereoscopic camera-based stop-and-go feature, which tracks the vehicle ahead in stop-and-go traffic, adjusting speed and keeping the car centred in the lane — allowing drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel for short periods.

Several models now incorporate camera and/or radar input to implement an adaptive cruise control function — maintaining a pre-established gap behind the vehicle ahead.

Some camera-based systems also warn the driver of an impending collision with a pedestrian or another vehicle, and can automatically apply the brakes to prevent or mitigate the impact.

Subaru offers several features based on what it calls its Eyesight system — a pair of cameras mounted above and on either side of the rear-view mirror.

It also includes unique features, such as pre-collision throttle management, which prevents inadvertent hard acceleration if there is a vehicle or other object close in front.

Lead-vehicle start alert is a novel feature that sounds a warning if the vehicle ahead moves away, as from a stop light, and you fail to follow suit in a timely manner.

Lane-sway warning identifies weaving within a lane, as might occur if the driver is drowsy, and emits a warning in response. Ford and others take a similar approach, using input from the lane-departure warning system to identify erratic driver input and provide a drowsiness warning.

Another approach to driver drowsiness is an in-car camera focused on the driver’s face, which uses software to identify changes in concentration and provide appropriate warnings.

Impressive as they are, these features are building blocks to even more autonomous functions. Cadillac is conducting real-world tests of a system it calls SuperCruise, which combines several functions to give the driver the ability of hands-free driving when the system determines it is safe to do so.

The next step may be platooning — the ability for several vehicles to drive together with minimal spacing between them, independent of constant driver control.

A long-term cooperative test program currently underway in Michigan is exploring the practicality of such autonomous technologies, which could become available by the end of the decade.

wheels@thestar.ca

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