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University of Minnesota Duluth group on cutting edge in car safety

University of Minnesota Duluth students Umair Ibrahim (from left), Viet Nguyen, Sai Divya Anne and UMD professor Imran Hayee, seen Friday, Aug. 30, 2013, have developed programming that will give drivers instant information on what’s ahead of them, whether it’s simply slowed traffic due to construction or an accident. (Clint Austin/Duluth News Tribune)

DULUTH -- When cars talk to each other, everyone on the road is safer.

That’s the summation of University of Minnesota Duluth professor Imran Hayee after five years of hard work with his electrical engineering graduate students to create technology that will better inform drivers as they travel in congested areas.

They have developed programming that will give drivers instant information on what’s ahead of them, whether it’s simply slowed traffic due to construction or an accident.

An example would be a warning flashing on a car’s screen saying there is a snowplow ahead or that a car is at a dead stop in a lane ahead. In both instances, the snowplow and the stopped car would relay that signal to vehicles behind them, and those vehicles would keep the message going down the road.

You see a basic warning concept in use today on message boards alongside highways, but that information often is based on general assumed conditions or sensors under a road. Both can be inaccurate by the time a driver hits a congested area.

“The vehicles can help carry the message,” Hayee said of the “vehicle to vehicle” system his students are developing.

It’s a system that has morphed from vehicles interacting with a roadside information system to one that takes real-time information from what’s happening to cars on the road, be it a slowdown or crash. Hayee’s team is working on a system that relays the information from car to car behind the congestion area, increasing the range and re-route options for drivers.

Work on “connected vehicle” technology began several years ago when the U.S. Department of Transportation put out a call for research on in-car warning systems. Last month, the National Transportation Safety Board announced that it is recommending to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it develop performance standards for the “connected vehicle” technology and require that it be installed in new vehicles. It’s a sign that groups like the one at UMD have pushed technology to where a system seems feasible.

“We wanted to help facilitate that decision,” Hayee said. “It’s a great leap forward.”

He said his group’s technology is on the forefront in the push for more information for drivers, and it could be integrated into new vehicle dashboard systems in four to five years. Before that, drivers could be able to buy portable units, much like the GPS devices available today.

For the “car hopping” technology to work, Hayee’s team estimates 20 to 35 percent of vehicles would have to have the technology on board.

Federal experts estimate that the technology could work to prevent 80 percent of all unimpaired accidents in the country, calling it a safety leap far beyond the advent of seat belts or airbags.

The idea for such systems was spawned in 1999 when the Federal Communications Commission opened the radio spectrum, which allowed room for new uses of communication. Some researchers imagined a fixed transmitter along every mile of highway to relay messages, but that proved to be limited and costly.

The UMD group switched to figuring out how to use vehicles as the conduit of information.

“Vehicle to infrastructure is locational,” Hayee said, “and that idea was diminishing about five years ago. We thought vehicle-to-vehicle could help more.”

Students this semester are working on how to make the program they’ve developed more user-friendly for novices behind the wheel.

Hayee said the technology is not designed to allow drivers to pay less attention and rely on a message from their car. It’s about more situational awareness, he said.

“You have more tools to work with to make better, safer decisions,” he said.

Mike Creger | Forum News Service

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