Friday, May 04, 2007

An Examination of Technology, Driver Inattentiveness,Traffic Controlling Devices, and Their Impact on General Highway Safety


Several days ago, we had several interesting questions posed from two members of the premier online forum dedicated to the discussion of radar detectors on which Veil, participates.

Ray had asked if another collision avoidance system that was appearing on certain Volvo models named Blind Spot Information System (BLIS) -- which appears to provide a similar function to Audi's side-assist on its vehicles as a $595USD safety option -- has the potential to create the same kind of interference, as does the Audi system, at least, in it's current form as other traffic controlling devices, such as bona-fide police radar speedtraps, radar drones that routinely adorn schoolbuses, commercial trucks, traffic safety vehicles, construction vehicles, and construction zone signs.

In direct response to this question:

As for as I know, Volvo's BLIS system, while similar in purpose to Audi's side-assist, appears to utilize digital photography and a comparison system of multiple frames digitally to obtain information about approaching vehicles in its blind spots, called BLIS zones.

It does not appear to utilize RADAR to determine this information so I expect that this particular variant of an accident avoidance system would be radar detector friendly.

I would hope that means if FoMoCo would ever begin to deploy such systems in their vehicles, that they would use a similar system, which does not utilize K-band radar -- at the specific frequency of 24.1Ghz (more generally known as 24Ghz) -- as does the current version of Audi's side-assist and other traffic controlling devices, ACC and ADAS systems, which have been legally created under the established guidelines of the FCC, harmonized standards of ETSI CEPT/ERC 70-03 EN300440 (1 to 25Ghz) and the German Frequency Allocation Authority, RegTP.

But that suggests another unrelated issue: Does the BLIS system have to ability to store a history of such images, which could later be used to do post-accident forensic discovery? And if so, who owns that information? The owner of such an equipped vehicle or the manufacturer? And is it protected by existing privacy laws in today's post-911 environment? Can the likes of such information collected by it or other post OBD-II information be used against the vehicle's owner in the event of an accident?

It would appear, that ignorance is not BLIS. We'll leave that discussion to another day.

With respect to the second observation made by Rob about inattentive drivers, my direct response is:

I suppose there is a good bit of truth to your assertion. But when you consider the potential for distraction when you factor in cell phones (primarily), Blackberry-like devices, i-Pod players and music systems, GPS navigation systems with integrated real-time traffic reporting, Audi's MMI, BMW's i-Drive, Mercedes' COMAND, and yes DVD video players up front (a long-haul truck driver friend of mine tells me he routinely observes other drivers WATCHING DVDs while driving the route of I-95!) and the like, I could see the real need for such a system on busy multi-lane highways that seem to exist everywhere, these days.

I would like to briefly digress for a moment, to express an opinion about about a closely related topic: the new menu-based multi-media control systems, initially created by BMW and subsequently duplicated by two other large German automotive manufacturers and now appearing with Lexus.

I would hope they reconsider the application of such devices inside their vehicles.

BMW used to resist the marketing pressure [from certain automotive journalists] to include cup-holders and the like inside most of their models by rightly asserting that a vehicle's primary purpose is safe transportation and not entertainment -- in the sense of being movie theater-like.

Their assertion was that drivers should stay absolutely focused on the singular task of driving and not be distracted -- in this case, with eating or drinking. A salient point, indeed. In fact, it was that philosophy, that enticed me to become an owner of a BMW 540iS in 2001.

But something unfortunately happened when BMW introduced their revised 7 series in 2002. They began responding to these pressures of the US automotive market, and as a result, lost that focus, in-part, in the process.

This change of philosophy has created, in my opinion, a series of dynamics -- that has already begun cascading throughout much of the automotive world, affecting even the Far East multi-national automotive manufacturing titans -- which actually contribute to increasing driver distraction while in motion and create a whole new set of complications to highway safety world-wide, as result.

Is it merely a coincidence that Audi is offering vehicles, for the US market, such as the RS4 and RS6 which have managed to successfully challenge the long-standing exalted status of both BMW's M3 and M5 models respectively? Perhaps, not. I, myself, have resisted the temptation to purchase a newer 5 Series for these very reasons. At least models like the Z4 and some of their latest 3 series vehicles (like the 328xi wagon) retain more of BMW's original purposeful character.

My suggested solution to correct this unhealthy trend is a very simple one:

If manufacturers like BMW, Audi, Daimler/Chrysler, Lexus, etc. are going to provide owners with multi-media-menu-driven control systems, they should also provide conventional buttons to accomplish many of the simple tasks -- like the changing of a radio station -- while driving and restricting their usage while in anything other than PARK and abandon the unnecessarily complicated burden these new-fangled systems place on drivers.

I believe these new systems require the driver to take his or her eyes off the road repeatedly and for potentially longer periods of time as well as requiring more conscious thought to use! This is not a good thing in any event.

And if I may address one final closely-related issue, before moving on:

If you have never sat in the cockpit of a late model BMW 7 Series, try doing so. Without anyone assisting you, try starting the vehicle and placing it either into reverse, drive, and then back into park. Be ready to bring a large cup of hot coffee with you now that your can place it in one of the big cup holders that are now installed the front, but make sure you drink it first, because by the time you figure out how to do these seemingly simple tasks, without actually being shown by the salesperson, your coffee will likely be too cold drink! If you managed to figure out these ostensibly easy tasks, here's another one. Try powering on the radio or changing the radio station to one of the preprogrammed radio stations (assuming someone was capable of actually programming them in the first place).

I trust, by now, you get the very real point I am making. If it takes you that long to perform just one task, while being entirely focused on it and in a stationary position, imagine attempting to do it while driving at the same time! What these and other high-tech systems lack is an ergonomic purpose. And without that, these new purportedly high-tech "solutions" actually create more problems. These systems are being marketed as 'ergonomically friendly, utilizing minimum complexity while providing maximum usability.'

I wonder what they have been putting in their coffee?

They may be ergonomically friendly if one were sitting in front a computer, but they have very limited practical utility to the driver of his/her vehicle while driving. What has happened to this company's focus?

If such multi-media systems are going to continue to appear inside the cabins of automobiles, at least provide single button alternatives which can be used more efficiently and with less distraction and thought, for the most common tasks, than these new systems, alone, provide. And please, do not unnecessarily increase the complexity to do something simple, like putting a car into Reverse or Drive.

Now that I have cleared the air with those related issues, let's come back to the matter immediately at hand.

According to the news reports, Gov. Corzine of NJ was seriously injured recently in an accident with their SUV and another pick-up truck on the GSP. Yes, he may not have been wearing a seat-belt. Yes, they may have been speeding excessively -- relative to the rate of surrounding traffic -- at the time. BUT, perhaps if this sort of collision avoidance and/or SWS technology was deployed -- in either or both vehicles that were involved -- the whole situation may have been completely avoided. I am fairly certain that these similar dynamics are a primary contributing factor to the rate of multi-vehicle-accidents. Some reports which suggest this: Investigation of Highway Workzone Crashes conducted by the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center and Driving Distractions Take Their Toll.

There's no doubt, there is a bona-fide and good purpose, accident avoidance, ACC, and ADAS systems can serve to actually reduce the likelihood of many collisions which often occur on crowded highways and therefore significantly improve general highway safety in a wholesale fashion. If implemented properly, these systems can effectively smooth the flow of traffic -- which is the intent of their design.

And perhaps finally, the authorities may begin to channel their resources on promoting alternative ways to reducing traffic accidents in a manner that doesn't point the broad finger of culpability at "speeders" to the degree that they routinely do now. Now that would make a hugely positive impact on traffic safety.

Historically, "speeding" tends to always be cited as the "underlying" cause of accidents in studies which in turn often leads to heavy-handed speed enforcement campaigns (aka the hiking of alternate "tax" revenue streams), ostensibly in the name of "improving safety."

It's not at all surprising to see that German automotive engineering has historically established, benchmark automotive technology for the sake of enhancing true safety innovations world-wide. This is a country which has fortunately resisted the PC pressure to eliminate the "no restrictions zones" of the Autobahn -- with which multi-national automotive companies, such as General Motors, often travel -- to shake-out new models prior to their introduction into the marketplace.

The following articles provide fascinating insight into subjects that are often over-looked, skewed, or rarely reported:

What these reports and others like them suggest, run counter to conventional wisdom:

Drivers who use radar detectors are actually safer drivers than drivers who do not.

Anyone who drives with one of the top performing radar detector from the makers of Beltronics, Escort, or Valentine already knows this and, in general, is more situationally aware and engaged with what is going on around them while they are driving -- in otherwords, they are less distracted! And you know what? It makes a whole lot of sense, when you really think about it. Indeed, the ultimate purpose these and related products like VEIL, actually serve to the motoring public is an increased amount of time to safely slow down and in a manner that minimizes abrupt braking behavior and maximizes the continued natural flow of traffic patterns - regardless of whether or not a driver is traveling at a somewhat higher rate of speed than the surrounding traffic.

I would also suggest that owners of such detectors, are generally more in tune with the operating condition of their often high performance vehicles (which tend to include leading traffic safety systems), as well, including knowing when they had their last oil change, tire-inflation check (as per Mario's recommendations), and knowing the handling characteristics of their vehicles in most circumstances. Put another way, they are better and safer drivers.

And not to put too fine a line on this point -- radar detectors, drivers who use them, and their manufacturers are not the villains, they are part of the solution (and always have been). For several years, the leading four radar detector manufacturers (Beltronics, Cobra, Escort, Whistler) have incorporated into their top models the ability to operate with certain steady-state radar transmitting devices (drones) that adhere to the protocols of the Safety Warning System (SWS) for the purposes of enhancing driver safety by alerting drivers to potential safety hazards that may exist ahead of them that may be initially unseen. The idea being, the sooner the driver is informed of a pending safety condition, the better the chances the driver will have at exhibiting a measured response. This initiative started more than a decade ago and the radar detector companies have building products with these capabilities for years, as the good corporate citizens they are. Why, more than ten years later, hasn't this promising system yet been implemented to it's full potential?

I suggest that the cynical view: that 'radar detectors are only made for people to speed and break the law' be abandoned finally for a more balanced one.

I also suggest that the cynical view: that 'traffic speed enforcement is merely a means to generate revenue' be abandoned for a more balanced one, as well.

The truth lies somewhere in between these two extreme and inaccurate beliefs. There, I said it.

In my opinion, the whole idea of "controlling speed" as the sole or primary means of reducing accident rates should be channeled more productively to actually creating circumstances to steady the overall flow rate of traffic. This can be accomplished a number of different ways without resorting to using devices which provide very little advanced warning to their use, thereby creating the very dynamic that contributes to undermining that goal.

It would be interesting to learn if accidents rates that can solely be attributed to speeding are statistically lower in places where detector usage is outlawed (such as certain Canadian provinces, Australia, and the Commonwealth of Virginia) versus places where they are not. I may be going out on a limb here, but I seriously tend to doubt it. Why? I will speak for only myself -- the speed at which I drive is not dictated by whether or not I happen to have a radar detector in my vehicle, it is dictated by the operating condition of my vehicle and the surrounding environment.

There is one speed, that I am concerned about and that is the speed at which new technology is being incorporated into our daily lives and at a rate that may be too fast for our collective society to appropriately adapt to them:

Do we really need cars that can park themselves?

Is it really wise to develop new technologies to replace skills which we all should innately possess?

What will be the long-term impact of increased reliance on automated systems, such as, ACC and ADAS on the overall level of driver attentiveness?

Is the combination of these technologies and existing traffic enforcement techniques a suitable replacement to the enforcement of an newly established rule-set of universal driving etiquette?


Upon some additional reflection in the time since we initially broke this story, I have formulated some additional thoughts which, I believe, should be openly discussed -- because this goes well beyond the mere need for certain radar detector manufacturers to re-program or re-engineer their existing radar detectors.

In their current form -- non-police operated radar-emitting devices which function right in the heart of police K-band radar -- a band that is still in considerable use throughout the world -- could devices like these create another potential safety "hazard" for drivers of such vehicles and/or even more likely other vehicles in close proximity, who are following, or who are being overtaken by such a vehicle, so equipped?

I am suggesting there may be a potential for the many drivers (often of high-performance vehicles) who are equipped with radar detectors in other vehicles close by who receive falses from these systems who may be inclined to stab their brakes abruptly and sharply as a result, since these systems create falses unlike any other and will either appear like a strong blast of rapidly increasing steady-state radar -- when making an approach from the rear -- or even worse, like instant-on police K-band radar at full strength when being passed.

In deference to Audi's side-assist collision avoidance system, this potential has already existed for some time now, with other similar traffic controlling devices which are in widespread use throughout the USA. We've recently learned there already exists radar drones that can sense motion prior to engaging their radar transmission in a manner that would appear, to an unsuspecting driver, like a genuine speedtrap.

This isn't entirely unlike the situation many years ago when certain drivers -- who illegally operated steady-state analogue radar jammers from within their vehicles -- would experience the same abrupt braking behavior from vehicles ahead of them -- as they made their approach from the rear -- by setting off every radar detector in the immediate area.

Imagine having to deal with a lot of drivers -- whose radar detectors you set-off with your radar jammer -- who constantly were stabbing their brakes immediately ahead of you every time you were overtaking them. A very scary prospect, indeed, and at the end of the day, a self-defeating one.

It would seem possible that a similar situation may be created for drivers of vehicles equipped with such technology, or at least to drivers immediately behind them or, even more likely, for drivers who were behind drivers who were behind such vehicles. See the dynamic potentially being created? This suggests the possibility of creating the opposite effect on the smooth flow of traffic -- again, a self-defeating purpose not much different from the radar jamming example previously mentioned.

In summary, in their current form, it appears these systems have the very real potential to create a unique set of new complications to highway safety, while at the same time, providing a very real potential to improve traffic safety -- essentially a proverbial high-tech Catch-22.

I am certain that the manufacturers and the users of such systems would not want the kind of bad PR, let alone even the slightest suggestive hint of liability that could arise from having such a system be potentially attributed to even one chain-reaction multi-vehicular-accident (MVA) particularly in today's litigious societies. At least one automotive manufacturer has already been down that unfortunate road once before, years ago, when on the receiving end of what likely were completely baseless "charges."

That most unfortunate negative experience led to the positive development of the brake application requirement prior to starting or engaging reverse or drive -- commonplace today with new automobiles equipped with auto gear-boxes. That bit of engineering genius came guessed it...Audi, in the wake of that fiasco.

Collision avoidance, ACC, and ADAS technologies are simply too important and too relavent, in my opinion, to have them potentially undermined or blemished by even a hint of such hypothetical events, particularly when it may easily be avoided altogether [by simply shifting the frequency a bit northward, out of both USA and European established police radar reception frequencies regardless of the modulation method] -- even if it means at a higher cost.

This situation also applies to the makers of these new advanced radar drones that adorn many moving vehicles, which also operate like instant-on speedtraps.

While certain radar detector manufacturers may be successful in re-engineering their new radar detector models to function effectively around these new ACC and ADAS systems, as well as, other radar drone traffic controlling devices, there will still be many 10s of thousands, if not 100s of thousands or millions of radar detectors throughout the world -- and therefore millions of drivers and their occupants (who don't drive with them) -- vulnerable to it's emissions.

Therefore, I sincerely hope that the movers and shakers within the halls of Audi , Bosch, Hella, Continental or any other manufacturer of these particular radar transponders nip this potential issue in the bud while this promising new technology is in its nascent stages of deployment before having to wait for the international guidelines to be revised. The private sector has all ways been able to move more quickly with cooperative self-regulation and I trust this can happen in this instance, as well, which in the long-run, will likely be the lower cost route.

So, I'll leave you here with several parting thoughts:

I welcome collision avoidance, ACC, and ADAS systems with open arms...but, for those employing radar to do so, at a DIFFERENT FREQUENCY than established international police radar bands, please.

Since these devices which have been legally defined under the established guidelines of the FCC (at least for usage in the US market), we hope that their manufacturers work more closely together with their automotive manufacturing customers and other commercial enterprises, such as TÜV Product Service Ltd; international automotive associations such as SEMA; other government and non-profit agencies which specifically deal with the consequences of some of these guidelines such as NHTSA, IIHS, and the IACP; as well as the leading related international and European Agencies such as the ITU and ETSI and EEA; and involve institutions of higher learning like MUARC and Georgia Institute of Technology in an effort to perhaps craft an improved revised comprehensive set of guidelines, while ensuring the freedom of allowing drivers the safe use of their radar detectors.

Provocative as it may sound, perhaps it's high-time to conduct empirical new studies on highway safety with respect to all of these traffic controlling devices -- both new and old -- including these developing collision avoidance systems (ACC/ADAS), radar drones of several types--including steady-state, motion-sense-instant-on, SWS-capable, and bona-fide speed enforcement traps -- such as steady-state and instant-on police radar, GATSO, Multanova, and to include the latest automated systems (which lack any direct feedback to drivers to immediately change their behavior at any given time and location) -- such as red light cameras, speed-on-green cameras, photo radar, and photo lidar -- as well as more conventional VASCAR systems (whose use minimizes the propensity of abrupt braking) -- to access their impact that stems from their use on potential causation of accidents and multi-vehicle-accidents on our ever increasingly crowded highway systems of ever increasingly distracted drivers and whether or not there truly is a reduction of accident rates as a result of all this technology designed merely to control speed while at the same time, disrupting the smooth flow of traffic, in the process.

Further, I believe these studies must also make an honest assessment of the condition of driver attentiveness in today's technology rich vehicles and it's potential contribution to the level of accident rates so we can consider the entire picture, instead of just pointing the finger at drivers who either speed or who use radar detectors as a tool to assist in safe driving.

These studies should be undertaken without regard to political bias, environmental, economic or international-trade factors, or be agenda-driven - like so many "studies" appear to be today. That kind of data collected may be very illuminating, indeed.

To that end, we have enlisted the assistance of Carl Fors of Speed Measurement Labs, who is capable of doing just that. Thank you Carl, for your contribution.

I would like to thank the following organizations for making this article possible: DARPA, CERN, Google, Wikipedia, and Merriam-Webster.

And one final point: The speed for which I am not concerned, is the speed in which new ideas can travel through the collective knowledge of Cyberspace to effect positive change.

Happy and safe motoring!

Veil Guy

Additional Related Reading:

©2007 Veil Corporation. All rights reserved. No part may be duplicated without expressed written permission of the author.