Lighting the way to Safety. Tech Talk Column 316.

From 29 January 1886 when Carl Benz applied for his “vehicle powered by a gas engine” we have seen mankind strive to go faster and further in motor vehicles. That patent, number 37435, was the first of approximately 100,000 different patents worldwide that created the modern automobile.

While the focus initially was on range and speed and comfort, it took twelve years before the harsh reality hit home of what motor vehicles were capable of. Henry Lindfield had an accident while driving his vehicle on 12 February 1898 and lost his life. According to reports, the accident was probably caused by the high speed at which the car was being driven – estimated to be 25km/h.

From that time on, we saw many improvements in road safety. Laminated windscreens; radial tyres; seat belts; airbags; anti-lock braking; electronic stability control and more. Despite all of these improvements, cars are still killing approximately 1.3 million people each year.

So it is no surprise that car manufacturers are constantly trying to innovate when it comes to safety features in a modern motor vehicle.

Despite the fact that only 25 per cent of our driving occurs when the sun isn’t shining, half of all deaths occur in the dark.

The solution might seem simple. Brighter headlights!

Several car manufacturers believe they can do better than that with smarter headlights. For many years we have seen improvements with headlights that turn slightly as you turn your steering wheel or automatically drop to low beam as cars approach but several manufacturers are now moving to next level intelligence.

Imagine headlights that are made up of a number of LED lights that can be individually controlled to deliver better vision and more information to the driver.

Driving on a strange road at night, especially in a city with multiple ramps and exits and limited traffic, can be confusing. Headlights are now available that will project turn-by-turn directions on to the road in front of you as you drive. Just as if there was an arrow painted on the road in front of you except the arrow stays a constant distance in front of your car. Change in speed zone? No problems. The new speed will be projected on to the road. Pedestrians on the side of the road could be highlighted with dots or arrows to point to where someone is detected. Changes in road conditions – such as ice on the road or road works ahead could also be projected on to the road.

Current auto-dimming headlights work OK at best. They rely on detecting a light level that is bright enough to assume it is an oncoming vehicle. Large signs on the side of the road will sometimes reflect enough light to confuse the auto-dimming feature or oncoming traffic does not trigger the sensors soon enough. With an array of LED lights, specific sections of lighting could be changed to suit the conditions. While on high beam, if a large sign is detected, that complete section of light could be turned down whilst leaving the rest of the area well lit. Likewise for oncoming traffic. That would allow for much better vision on your side of the road to try and spot those pesky kangaroos without blinding the driver of oncoming traffic.

Some may say this is a moot point. Why do we need to bother when cars will be driving themselves soon. That is correct, but we still have some years to go before that reality comes to pass – so in the meantime we need to keep improving the safety with a human behind the wheel.

Mathew Dickerson

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