Gadgets Galore: Eyeballing the Latest in Auto Safety Advances

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If Volvo's safety concept car truly reflects the vehicle of the future, we're in for a ride loaded with hidden cameras, eyeball sensors, robotic seats and heartbeat and fingerprint detectors.

It's easy to marvel over all the high-tech features that transform the futuristic vehicle into an engineer's vision of ultimate safety.

The big question is, how will Volvo's vehicle--which cost several million dollars to design and build--test in the real world? At what point would video screens, buzzers and blinking lights themselves become a safety hazard?

You have to hand it to Ford Motor Co.'s Volvo subsidiary, and to others in the industry who are searching for ways to improve vehicle safety.

But it has to be tempered with practicality.

Even Volvo spokesman Daniel Johnston concedes that engineers can add all the bells and whistles imaginable, but the bottom line is, "If I put my 74-year-old mother in there, is she going to understand what is going on?" Any driver, regardless of age, can fall victim to gadget overload.

Because Volvo's car is still in the concept stage and came without an engine, there was no chance to test drive it on its recent tour through Southern California. Johnston says a drivable version of the car will be unveiled later this year in Europe.

The Volvo safety concept features cameras and sensors embedded in the side mirrors and rear bumper to alert the driver to things hidden in the vehicle's blind spots.

Cameras in the rear show when there's an object or person behind the vehicle as it is backing up. The cameras enable drivers to see what's behind them without turning their heads--instead, they scan the 4-by-8-inch TV screen on the dashboard, says Volvo senior engineer Christer Gustafsson.

Considering the number of "tragic accidents that involve parents running over young children in the driveway" each year, a car with cameras that would show drivers exactly what's behind them could be very beneficial, says Adrian Lund, chief operating officer of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.

Then there's a radar unit that measures how fast and how close traffic is approaching from behind the car. If traffic is approaching in the blind spot, or getting too close, the driver is warned by a system of lights and an audible alert.

A collision warning device also senses if the concept car is traveling too close to another vehicle. If the gap between vehicles is closing too fast, the driver is alerted by red lights and an acoustic signal.

On-board cameras also monitor the car's position on the roadway. If the driver starts to doze off and the vehicle begins veering to either side of the road without activation of the turn signals, an alarm will alert the driver.

Curious about what your kids are up to in the back seat? No need to turn around: The concept car features yet another camera--which displays on the dashboard screen what's happening in the back.

Another of the car's features, designed for safety and security use, is a sensor that would detect human and animal heartbeats. The auto maker says it would alert parents via a remote unit if a child or pet were mistakenly left inside or if someone had broken into the car and was hiding inside.

A fingerprint sensor that allows only authorized users to get into the car is an anti-theft feature. All the driver must do to unlock the car is grasp the door handle.

Engineers also included an external air bag on the front of the vehicle to reduce injuries to pedestrians in the event of a car-pedestrian accident.

The car is designed so drivers can see through the windshield support pillars.

Because enhancing visibility for the driver and ensuring proper positioning of the driver's seat were considered key design factors, Gustafsson and his colleagues were eager to show off the high-tech driver's seat.

The vehicle is programmed to automatically set up the driver's environment based on a sensor that reads the position of the driver's eyes and extrapolates height and other information from that. That leads to automatic adjustment of the driver's seat, steering wheel, pedals, center console and even the floor pan beneath the driver's feet.

In concept, it sounds great. But something went haywire when I tried it out.

I'm 5-foot-9, but the eyeball sensor must have been out to lunch when I sat down. Suddenly, I felt like I was caught in a trash compactor. The steering wheel jammed up next to me and the floor pan rose until my knees were practically parallel with the steering wheel. I thought they'd need one of those Jaws of Life devices to extricate me.

"We had some problems with software," Johnston said. "That's why we call it a concept car."

More than likely, some of the concepts on the car won't make it into production because they "just can't be done and maintain a level of safety and security that we want when someone is driving," he said.

Although there's a potential for driver distraction from all these features, Lund from the Insurance Institute doubts that the safety concept car equipment would be as distracting as the navigation systems, CD players and video screens already found in some vehicles.

But Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, said more studies are needed to determine whether drivers--particularly older ones--have difficulty processing information coming simultaneously from video screens and other displays in a vehicle.

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Jeanne Wright cannot answer mail personally. Please do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: jeanrite@aol.com.

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