— Caption: Ibeo's laser scanner keeps track of vehicles in the road ahead (Image: Ibeo)
Smart vehicles capable of following the flow of traffic, parking themselves and even warning drowsy or distracted drivers to pay attention to the road are among the highlights of the Transport Systems World Congress, which takes place this London, UK, this week.
One of the recurring themes of the show is vehicle intelligence, and the inventions on display range from unfinished prototypes to models already on the market in Japan.
A prototype system developed by German company Ibeo enables a car to automatically follow the vehicle ahead. At the press of a button an infrared laser scanner in the car's bumper measures the distance to the next vehicle and a computer maintains a safe distance, stopping and starting if it becomes stuck in traffic.
The scanner can track stationary and moving objects from up to 200 metres away at speeds of up to 180 kilometres (112 miles) per hour. "It gives a very precise image of what's going on," Max Mandt-Merck of Ibeo told New Scientist.
"Our software can distinguish cars and pedestrians from the distinctive shapes the scanner detects." A video shows the information collected by the scanner (2.1MB, mov format).
Mandt-Merck says the scanner can also be used to warn a driver when they stray out of lane or try to overtake too close to another vehicle. It could even activate airbags 0.3 seconds before an impact, he says.
Other systems at the show aim to prevent accidents altogether, by alerting drivers when they become distracted. A video shows one that sounds an audible alarm and vibrates the driver's seat when their head turns away from the road ahead (1.91MB WMV format). "There's an infrared camera just behind the steering wheel," explains Kato Kazuya, from Japanese automotive company Aisin. "It detects the face turning by tracking its bilateral symmetry."
A video shows another system, developed by Japanese company DENSO Corporation, that uses an infrared camera to determine whether a driver is becoming drowsy (2.75MB WMV format). "It recognises the shape of your eyes and tracks the height of that shape to watch if they close," explains Takuhiro Oomi. If a driver shuts their eyes for more than a few seconds their seat vibrates and a cold draught hits their neck.
The same camera system could offer other functions, Oomi says. "It can also allow the headlight beams to follow your gaze, or recognise the face of a driver and adjust the seat to their saved preferences," he says.
In the car park outside the conference centre Toyota demonstrated an intelligent parking system. A video shows the system prompting a driver to identify their chosen parking spot, which is identified using ultrasonic sensors (9.8MB, WMV format).
Once the space has been selected, the wheel turns automatically and the driver needs only to limit the car's speed using the brake pedal. When reversing into a parking bay, a camera at rear of the car is used to recognise white lines on the tarmac.
The system needs 7 metres of space for parallel parking, but can fit into a regular parking bay with just 30 centimetres clearance on either side.
"Future developments will probably see a system that lets you get out and leave the car to park itself," says a Toyota spokesman. The intelligent parking system has been available on some Toyota models in Japan since November 2005 and will be available in Europe and the US from January 2007.