Sun, 16 Mar 2003

Experts skeptical of electronic safety

Felix Rehwald, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, Hamburg, Germany

An aware front-seat passenger can be a help to a driver in certain situations such as getting around in a big city.

Sometimes, he or she can prevent accidents or even loss of life by warning of a red light the driver might have missed.

But most of the time, the passenger is powerless, often because human thinking is not quick enough.

Motor manufacturers have such occasions in mind when they think of electronic assistance. They are developing driver assistance systems which intervene as "virtual front-seat passengers" in emergencies.

BMW is testing an "active accelerator" which uses a light upward pressure to alert the driver when the speed limit has been exceeded or the car is following another at an unsafe distance.

The information is obtained through a GPS (Global Positioning System) navigation system and a navigation DVD on which data about street systems and speed limits is stored. Radar sensors supply information about immediate features in the car's surroundings such as distance from the vehicle ahead.

Professor Raymond Freymann, head of BMW's vehicle research unit, says the system is intended to compensate for drivers' weaknesses.

Sometimes a driver on an autobahn is not aware if a speed limit applies on a given stretch. The light reverse pressure on the accelerator pedal is a way of imparting warnings, Freymann says.

DaimlerChrysler is testing to what extent accidents at intersections can be prevented by warning systems. Specialists at the firm's Stuttgart headquarters say that the systems use cameras and sensors to record and analyze traffic situations in an instant and, if necessary, warn the driver - or even cause the brakes to work.

Audi has a concept car, Pikes Peak quattro - unveiled early this month - which is fitted with a "lane-departure warning system". A sensor notes the lane markings and a warning tone sounds and, if the driver drifts from the lane, the steering wheel begins to vibrate. The vehicle also contains a piece of apparatus to regulate speed by automatically maintaining a safe distance from the vehicle ahead.

DaimlerChysler spokeswoman Patricia Piekenbrock says these assistance systems are designed to bring nearer to reality the vision of accident-free driving.

Active safety systems are necessary to reduce the incidents of accidents, she added.

Traffic specialists agree in principle, but with reservations. Maximilian Maurer, of the ADAC motor club, says the technology should not be looked at in isolation.

Before these safety systems are introduced into series-built vehicles, legal issues need resolving. It was for example unclear what the upshot would be in a case where an accident happened as a result of an electronic driving aid causing the brakes to be applied.

Taking away control from the driver, which Maurer believes is a looming risk, is something carmakers do not want. The driver will if necessary be able to over-ride any automatic actions.

Alexander Berg, head of accident research at the Dekra specialist organization, says that in spite of this, such systems could have results opposite of what is intended.

He referred to the theory of risk compensation under which a motorist with such a system on board drives more recklessly. The result is an increased risk of accident in even the most technically safe vehicle.

However, Berg is not entirely convinced by this theory. He elaborates: "If I understand an electronic aid system as a system which warns me of dangers then I will drive all the more safely."

He believes it more probable is that many drivers feel overwhelmed by the system. That is why explanations about their functions and operating methods are important.

Only when motorists know what their car is capable of doing and not doing can the system possibly really improve safety, he said. Otherwise motoring will not be safer.