Earlier this month, I read with great interest a story by The Chronicle Herald’s Ian Fairclough about New Minas resident Mark Selvidge.
Selvidge was injured in a car crash when he was 11 years old and left with numerous challenges — including a loss of peripheral vision on his right-hand side — which means that he’s never been able to have a driver’s licence.
Selvidge, 29, wondered if some modern automotive technologies may help him out, citing a provincial driver’s handbook that states that modified or specially-equipped vehicles may be used to help Nova Scotians with conditional or restricted licences to keep their driving privileges, provided it was safe to do so.
Specifically, Selvidge hoped that a modern vehicle with newly-introduced “intersection assist” systems (which warn drivers if a car is approaching from the side), could be classified as specially-equipped vehicles that may help him to get a conditional driver’s licence.
Cars with systems like these are not fully-autonomous, but rather incorporate some autonomous safety functionality into a vehicle that’s otherwise driven manually. Selvidge said he doesn’t want a car that drives for him, but rather, a car that uses features like intersection assist to help make up for his limited peripheral vision.
At the moment, according to Fairclough’s article, Selvidge had contacted Nova Scotia’s Transportation Minister Lloyd Hines to shed some light on his idea to use new-car tech to help overcome his disability, even offering to take part in a pilot project. The ministry is reviewing his proposal.
For the benefit of Mark Selvidge, and anyone else in a similar situation with similar questions, I’d like to provide the following comments and thoughts.
I’ll preface this by explaining that while I’m not in any way familiar with the specifics of Selvidge’s situation or disability, nor those of anyone else in a similar scenario. However, I have spent tens of thousands of kilometres testing cars with systems like these, and many others, in the real world.
So, to Mark Selvidge: I hope you’ll find the following information to be useful and I wish you luck on the road to a future driver’s licence.
There are several means that a modern car equipped with intersection assist systems may work. In general, the system (which may have different names, depending on the manufacturer) uses radar transmitters within the front bumper of the vehicle to scan the intersection as the vehicle moves into it.
This tends to work at lower speeds — from a stop, as you carefully proceed into the intersection on a green light, for instance. Since the radar transmitters can’t penetrate buildings and nearby infrastructure, they need to be able to “see” into the intersection directly. This is why they work at lower speeds, and not for a vehicle that’s heading through an intersection at a higher speed, on a green light.
Many affordable cars, now on sale, have a similar feature that works in reverse. It’s typically called rear cross-path traffic detection. As you back out of a low-visibility parking space, this system can alert you if there’s a vehicle approaching from either side, and may even be able to automatically brake — potentially preventing an accident.
An intersection assist system works the same way, but looks in front of the vehicle, instead of behind. The radar system can detect an incoming car approaching from the side, alert the driver, and even stop the vehicle on its own.
Another alternative (though not a dedicated intersection assist system) may be found in the form of vehicles with body-mounted cameras. These typically intend to make parking easier, though some models have cameras (about the size of a nickel), fixed to the front edges of the vehicle. Typically, these are mounted just ahead of the wheel well opening, and look down the way, at a 90-degree angle from the front of the car.
At present, both intersection assist and this advanced camera system are available mainly (or even exclusively) on higher-end luxury models. Of course, the suppliers who create these systems for various automakers are in the business of moving product, so we can expect technology like this to make its way into more affordable vehicles, down the line.
That said, these systems don’t work 100 per cent of the time, 100 per cent of the time.
To my experience, there’s no such system, yet, that can’t have false alarms, or fail to properly warn the driver of a hazard from time to time.
I’ve been driving vehicles with features like these for years, and while they could save a life, they are best used to supplement the actions of a human driver, rather than replace them.
The gist? These features are enjoyed by millions of drivers around the world, but safety is ultimately up to the driver, not the car. A wide range of variables affects how well these advanced safety features work, or if they work, in a given situation. They’re very good, but they’re not perfect. Especially in winter.
Even the most advanced autonomous systems in the most modern vehicles are easily rendered inoperative by a small buildup of snow, salt and slush. I’ve been seeing this all winter as Sudbury, Ont., has had a particularly bad one. The systems alert you when they’ve gone offline — in some cases due to a fingernail-thick layer of snow covering the sensors on the vehicle’s body or bumper.
Clear the sensors off, and the systems kick back in, until more snow and slush block them once more.
Camera based systems have their own challenges. In the case of any vehicle I’ve ever tested with externally-mounted cameras (which may be able to help drivers see into an intersection), those cameras are easily blocked — in part or full — by salt, snow, ice or road-spray. If you’re driving on a nice summer afternoon, you’d probably be OK. If you’re driving in the rain or snow, chances are you’d lose most of the camera image, or lose it fully, after a few minutes of any sort of precipitation or salty water on the road.
At night, the image quality from these camera systems also tends to be fairly limited. Though the vehicle’s exterior lighting can help to a degree, I wouldn’t trust the on-screen camera to accurately pick up an approaching vehicle at a distance.
Simply put, there are situations where these systems can’t be relied on. Until we start seeing vehicles with the ability to see through (or scan through) simple snow and ice, these systems are best used, when they’re available, as a supplemental safety measure.
Features like these are stepping stones to a future of autonomous driving, though I suspect fully-autonomous motoring is many years away.
There’s more to come on this front, though. Before long, vehicles will be able to start communicating with one another, complete with GPS coordinates, which will give your car the ability to see around corners and through buildings.
Infrastructure (like intersections) will start being fitted with their own radar and sensors which can actively track the traffic situation nearby in real time, transmitting the information to approaching cars.
It’s very feasible that, before long, the intersection itself could be made safer, regardless of what vehicle you’re driving, since it would be aware of what’s happening all around it.
These so-called smart intersections could communicate with compatible cars to improve safety and will do a better job than ever of making passage safe for all road users once the technology is completed and implemented.
I hope you’ll keep an eye on these developments. I know I will be.