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Safety First: Software That Can Help Save Lives

Software is starting to play a bigger role in allowing auto manufacturers to build more safety features into cars.
Software is starting to play a bigger role in allowing auto manufacturers to build more safety features into cars.

OnStar, a wholly owned subsidiary of General Motors Corp., is a pioneer in that area. OnStar launched its telematics subscription service in the 1997 Cadillac, and now some 2.5 million drivers of all types of vehicles subscribe to it.



OnStar made 50 revisions to get its telematics service right, Radloff says.
OnStar connects an auto's global-positioning system to the engine and other devices and to OnStar's call center. Within 20 seconds after an air bag deploys, an OnStar call-center operator knows it's likely an accident has occurred. Software inside the car allows wireless technology to relay make, model, owner, and location to the call center, which dispatches emergency personnel to the site.

During development, OnStar went through more than 50 revisions to get it right before launching the service. "We went through many, many tests and validations," says Bruce Radloff, chief technology officer at OnStar.

Iteris Inc. says it will unveil in April a partnership with a large auto manufacturer for its Lane Departure Warning System in passenger vehicles; cars equipped with the system will be available for purchase in the United States by this summer. The system is activated when a vehicle reaches 40 miles per hour. Software and algorithms embedded in Texas Instruments Inc. and Intel microprocessors gather information from the speedometer and the turn signal. As the vehicle travels down the highway, an optical lens monitors movement and distance from marks in the lane dividing the road. If a driver fails to use the turn signal and the car veers into another lane, the driver is alerted by a buzzing sound that comes through the stereo speakers. The Lane system communicates with the car's diagnostic system through the serial data bus, says Francis Memole, senior VP of in-vehicle systems at Iteris.

Meanwhile, Ford is using a simulator it developed, called the Virtual Test Track Experiment, to create software-based technologies aimed at warning drivers if they start to fall asleep at the wheel.

Last month, 24 volunteers were kept awake the night prior to entering the simulator, where they "drove" for up to three hours on a simulated darkened country road. An in-car camera monitored each driver's face for eye movement, and a computer calculated what percentage of the eyes were closed to determine if the driver was falling asleep. Ford hasn't disclosed specific plans for the technology.