Driving in the Dark
Five ways automakers are making it safer and easier to hit the road after sunset.
During this holiday season, 92.3 million Americans traveled 50 or more miles from home, according to AAA. Much of that driving took place before or after work hours, and when you consider that December 21 had more darkness than any other day of the year — New Yorkers, for example, saw just 9 hours and 15 minutes of light — it's clear as day how much driving in the dark we do during the winter months.
Automakers are hard at work on high-tech systems that lessen the perils and the stress of driving at night and in the dark early-morning hours. Many of these approaches depend on technology that's only become available and affordable in recent years. Take radar-based driving-assist systems as an example: Twenty years ago, a built-in automotive radar setup would have been impossibly expensive and physically enormous. Fifty years before that, ground-based radar systems were the deciding factor in the Battle of Britain. Nowadays, radar will guide your car smoothly into a parking space while you keep your hands off the wheel and on your latte (not manufacturer-recommended).
In spite of their recent availability in automobiles, many of these systems are still expensive options limited to high-end vehicles. But just as built-in navigation systems trickled down from costly luxury cars to four-cylinder econoboxes in less than ten years, you can expect that today's cutting-edge automotive tech will be just another option box on tomorrow's family hatchback.
Here are five ways that automakers are using advanced technology to make it safer and less stressful for us to drive in the dark, this holiday season and beyond.
The most direct approach to making it easier to drive in the dark is simply to illuminate the road. High-intensity-discharge (or HID) headlamps began appearing on cars in the early 1990s, and since then have spread across the industry. These lights most often use xenon gas, and produce light up to four times brighter than traditional halogen headlights.
Brighter headlights help to illuminate the road ahead, but can fall short when cars are headed around corners or tackling twisty roads at night. The next step, therefore, comes in active lighting, which aims the headlights based on steering input and other factors. While the Citroën DS featured rudimentary swiveling headlights in 1967 — though it wasn't the first, and the modern equivalent of such systems are available on tons of vehicles today — the latest setups, such as BMW's Adaptive Headlights, use a camera integrated into the rearview mirror to detect oncoming vehicles and automatically dip the headlights so that other drivers don't get a flash of high-powered xenons in their eyes. Automakers such as Audi, Lexus, Ford, General Motors, and Infiniti offer similar systems, too. Mercedes even uses mirrors to redirect the headlight beams when driving in fog.
Night Vision with Pedestrian and Obstacle Detection
Even with powerful xenon headlights — and computers working to ensure they're pointed where they need to be — there's no way to illuminate the entire road ahead. To deal with that, a number of high-end manufacturers, including Mercedes, Audi, and BMW, now offer night-vision systems as options in their mid-range and top-of-the-line models. Some project images on a head-up display, and some on an LCD screen on the instrument panel or dash, and the newest systems in use now specifically call out pedestrians or obstacles that pose an imminent threat of collision.
The latest night-vision system from Mercedes, called Active Night View Assist Plus, not only detects people but also objects, by shining non-visible infrared light, like military-grade night-vision tech — other systems typically rely on the infrared generated from body heat. When a person is detected, the Mercedes system goes so far as to flash a spotlight on the pedestrian to both warn them of the oncoming car (though one assumes the headlights would do that already) and also to point out the person to the vehicle's driver, in case the highlighted silhouette on the night-vision display wasn't enough. At the same time, the HID headlights will dip for five seconds, to avoid blinding the pedestrian. Audi's version claims to be able to detect a pedestrian as far as an incredible 1000 feet away — more than three football fields.
Active Cruise Control and Braking
Radar- and laser-based active cruise-control systems have been available on premium cars for several years now, modulating engine power and brakes to maintain a set distance behind a vehicle ahead. But new iterations are even more intelligent and more capable. The latest systems, such as Toyota's adaptive cruise control, also can scan for slower-moving vehicles on roads with very light or no traffic and apply the brakes while approaching. Some, like Audi's, will warn a driver with a beep about upcoming vehicles, even in other lanes. The most active systems, however, can bring the vehicle to a full stop if they detect that the vehicle ahead is not moving. Volvo's City Safety system is active only at speeds less than 18 mph, but systems like Mercedes's Pre-Safe, which works in conjunction with the adaptive cruise control, can completely halt the vehicle from any speed.
Blind-Spot Monitoring and Lane-Departure Warning
Blind-spot monitoring systems use radar modules, usually one in each rear-quarter panel, to scan for and detect vehicles in adjacent lanes. If a vehicle is detected, the driver receives a warning. In Ford's application, this is as simple as flashing LEDs located on the side mirror. BMW's Blind Spot Detection will even vibrate the steering wheel as a tactile warning to drivers who begin to change lanes when another vehicle is in the blind spot. Audi's optional Side Assist illuminates yellow LEDs in the side mirror any time the radar system detects an approaching vehicle in an adjacent lane — even before the Audi driver has flicked on the turn signal. How's that for reading your mind?
Lane-departure warning systems are offered by quite a few manufacturers, and are not limited to the most-expensive vehicles: Honda, Buick, Toyota, and Ford, among many others, use cameras to monitor lane markers. If a vehicle drifts over the line, these systems will alert the driver, either by vibrating the steering wheel or seat, or with dash lights and beeps. In some vehicles, the computers go even further. Lexus's system will counter-steer the car to keep the car in the intended lane, and Infiniti's gently applies the appropriate brakes on one side of the vehicle to prevent the drift. These systems generally do work in the dark, but, as always, vigilance is best.
Attention Assistance and Tiredness
We always suggest staying off the road when you're tired — often the case when driving during those long winter nights — but it's easy to become less alert over the course of a night without even realizing it. The other systems highlighted here will all help to avoid accidents based on physical surroundings (although there's absolutely no substitute for careful, attentive, distraction-free driving), but systems from several automakers are actually focused on determining when a driver is fatigued — before anything can happen.
The new Attention Assist system, which is standard on 2011 Mercedes E-classes, among other Benzes, monitors steering inputs to identify what Mercedes calls "erratic corrections," and will warn the driver with a tone and a message on the instrument panel, accompanied by — we kid you not — a coffee-cup icon. Volvo's Driver Alert technology, which has been on sale for several years, works differently. It depends on a camera and other sensors to determine if a driver seems inattentive by looking at the vehicle's distance from lane markers and position on the road. Saab is even working on technology that can scan a driver's face for signs of fatigue, but such an advancement remains several years from production.
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I would like a sensor to automatically slow my car down when it detects a traffic patrol car coming into radar range.