'Smart' vehicle program hits rough road

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News  |  Aug. 23, 2002 at 3:41 PM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 23 (UPI) -- Vehicle manufacturers and government agencies are making progress in bringing advanced safety technology to consumers, but roadblocks remain, according to discussions at a National Academies meeting Friday.

A select committee from the Transportation Research Board discussed the Intelligent Vehicle Initiative with transportation officials as part of the TRB's review of the project. The initiative grew out of the realization that driver error causes most highway collisions, according to the IVI annual report. The program aims to accelerate development of technologies, such as radar-based collision-avoidance systems, that assist drivers in recognizing danger more quickly and reacting more effectively.

The biggest stumbling block to faster development has been automaker concerns over proprietary information, said Raymond Resendes, IVI program manager in the Department of Transportation's Intelligent Transportation Systems Office.

"When we do work with the car companies, they try to set a lot of restrictions on what we can see," Resendes told the committee. "They don't want to give it to us because it would end up in public."

Committee member Helen Petrauskas, a retired vice president of safety engineering at Ford, asked if the program has tried to deal with those concerns. Earlier efforts reached a compromise, she said, by letting companies brief government employees on sensitive data without handing over copies of the work, which might then be subject to Freedom of Information Act requests.

Such "show, don't keep" procedures still are used, but problems remain, said August Burgett, IVI program technical director at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. For instance, a manufacturer's collision-avoidance radar might track 15 or 20 targets simultaneously and pick out the greatest collision risk, he told the committee, and the company will pass along the data on that priority target.

"But (the companies don't) tell you anything about the other targets so you can make some judgments about how close they were and whether they had an effect on how the driver reacted," Burgett said. "And (they) certainly don't tell you the logic they used to pick out that one identified as the one you should pay attention to."

In ongoing tests of rear-end collision avoidance systems, the government had to create its own impact-prediction software to help interpret the results because the companies would not make their algorithms available, Burgett told the committee.

Committee member Thomas Rockwell said he was surprised the program is funding research when it cannot view all the results, but fellow member Michael Finklestein said similar experiences in fuel economy research still have produced positive results.

Despite those issues, IVI certainly is fulfilling its mission of speeding up tech delivery to the consumer, Burgett and Resendes said. Government research grants to one company often spur parallel work among competitors worried about falling behind technologically, Burgett said.

Another IVI project has led to carmakers using standardized tools to create the computer icons and other methods of passing information to the driver, Resendes said. A program to study cargo truck rollovers on highway ramps has yielded an effective warning system and helped truck fleets improve their education methods, he said.

IVI programs are divided between light-duty vehicles, such as cars, commercial trucks, transit vehicles and specialty vehicles such as snowplows. Current plans are increasing emphasis on the light-duty research, Resendes said.

Congress created IVI as part of the 1998 Transportation Efficiency Act for the 21st Century, and is expected to use the TRB's findings while drafting legislative language for a follow-up bill, said Nancy Humphrey, a TRB senior staff officer working with the IVI review committee. Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., told United Press International earlier this year the House could take up the matter as early as January 2003.

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