By Tony Whitney

With so many vehicles these days boasting complex and effective safety equipment, it would be easy to believe that manufacturers have exhausted every possible way of exploiting electronics for automotive applications. The world of electronics and computers has brought us traction control, anti-lock brakes, brake assist, stability control, accident-sensing systems and even technology to detect an imminent rollover and bring safety systems into play accordingly.

These technological wonders are not just confined to high-end vehicles. As I predicted many years ago, electronic safety systems have filtered down from costly upscale vehicles to entry-level cars, minivans, SUVs and pickups. Typical are vehicles like the new Hyundai Tucson, which, among a lengthy roster of once-upscale features, has anti-lock brakes, an electronic stability program and traction control for a basic price-tag under $20,000. Not too long ago you could pay three times that price to get similar features.

Of course, intense competition has prompted automakers to continually try and outdo one another on the technological front. As features like stability control and brake assist become common, other areas of automotive safety are explored with a view to breakthroughs that could give a particular vehicle a market edge.

A good example of an auto manufacturer breaking new ground with a safety system can be found in Nissan’s fascinating new electronic system that’s actually capable of scanning road markings and warning the driver when the vehicle is wandering off line.

Nissan Lane Departure Warning System

Nissan Lane Departure Warning System

Nissan Lane Departure Warning System
Click image to enlarge

Nissan calls it a Lane Departure Warning System, or LDW. It’s a remarkable piece of technical ingenuity and might find wider use as time goes by if Nissan licenses the technology to other automakers. Basically, LDW uses a small camera, a speed sensor and an indicator with an audible warning buzzer to alert the driver if the vehicle touches either a lane marking line or a painted line at the edge of the road. The system has been shown on concept vehicles for some time, but the first production application is part of an optional “technology package” for the 2006 Infiniti M sedan. Infiniti is, of course, Nissan’s luxury car division.

The LDW system scans lane markings using a tiny camera mounted behind the car’s rearview mirror. Over the past few years, ultra-small TV cameras have found lots of vehicle applications, first appearing as back-up viewing aids on large motorhomes and more recently, fulfilling a similar role with luxury cars and SUVs. Like so many other electronic devices, these tiny cameras have become quite inexpensive and I’ve seen home surveillance TV security systems in electronic stores for less than $200, complete with monitor.

The camera’s signal and the vehicle’s speed are sent to the system’s advanced microprocessing unit. This combines the information to calculate both the distance between the vehicle and the lane marking and the lateral velocity to the lane marking (how quickly you are moving across the line). The system then “makes a judgment” as to whether the vehicle is moving out of its lane – depending on the distance and lateral velocity to the lane.

I tried the system quite extensively and it proved to function very effectively indeed. Make the slightest move towards the lane marking, and you get a warning beep in the cockpit that can’t be easily ignored.

If the driver uses a turn signal to make a “planned” crossing of a divider line, the system is temporarily disabled. It got me thinking that compulsory fitting of such systems might be the only way to get some drivers to use their turn signals, but that’s not the real reason for fitting LDW, according to Nissan. Use of the turn signals warns the LDW system that a lane change is imminent and the beep is silenced.

With so many accidents caused by driver fatigue or distractions of some kind, systems like LDW could become widely used. Wandering out of the occupied lane is usually the first sign of a driver getting sleepy and a warning from LDW could save lives in cases like that. The system features a manual cancel switch that allows the driver to disable the system when required. Many drivers might feel they only need to turn LDW on when they have had a long day and are worried about sleepiness. The system automatically resets itself when the vehicle is restarted and remains activated until the driver decides to turn it off.

Of course, systems like this will always prompt a few “Big Brother in the cockpit” comments from critics, but if lives can be saved, the occasional annoying warning beep when the driver lane-wanders is a small price to pay.

There’s no word yet whether Nissan will offer LDW on a wider range of vehicles, but that’s what usually happens when an automaker comes up with a new safety breakthrough. Driver inattention and distraction is a serious problem in the field of traffic safety and any way of cutting the accident rate will be welcomed by governmental accident-prevention people and careful drivers alike.

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