General Motors

You've probably seen the commercials -- a weary driver on an unfamiliar road, it's dark and foggy, the asphalt twists and turns as the driver continues on ... when suddenly a deer jumps out and the driver has to swerve to avoid it. It's not necessarily the most common driving experience, but it does represent advertising's worst-case scenario to highlight a vehicle's safety features.

Limited visibility, whether due to darkness, obstructed views, or inclement weather, has always been one of the biggest challenges for drivers ... and automakers. Car companies have addressed this issue in various ways over the years -- with brighter headlights, reduced blind spots and a variety of other technologies to enhance visibility. Some of their current offerings might seem like science fiction, but many automotive manufacturers are selling or developing systems to make driving a safer process. So, how will we better see from inside our vehicles into the next decade and beyond? Let's examine a few existing and conceptual technologies that aim to keep our vision clear and focused.

Nighttime driving has always presented unique challenges for motorists. While headlights have evolved over the past century to increase their brightness and range, the basic halogen bulb has some limitations, prompting alternative solutions from manufacturers. Mercedes-Benz, for instance, has developed an "Intelligent Light System," on its new E-Class model. As the name implies, it alters the light output and pattern depending on driving conditions. The system boosts light output as vehicle speed increases. It can also adjust the left-to-right lighting balance to compensate for weather conditions, and even allows certain elements to swivel, keeping a uniform pattern and visibility range.

Other car companies are exploring alternatives to traditional bulbs. Several years ago, manufacturers turned to high-intensity discharge (HID) headlights to increase the brightness and range of our headlights. HIDs use heated Xenon to create a light that is two or three times as bright as traditional Tungsten or Halogen sealed-beam headlamps. Because they give off a whiter light, they can illuminate road signs and other objects better than traditional bulbs, but there are trade-offs. Their high cost has limited their use to high-end vehicles for the most part, their pattern is typically very sharp, giving little illumination outside that pattern, and they create more glare for oncoming drivers.

Another new lens type is the light-emitting diode(LED), found on such upscale vehicles as the Lexus LS600h, Cadillac Escalade Platinum and European version of the Audi R8 V10. Current LED performance falls between halogen and HID headlamps. Power consumption is slightly lower than other headlamps, they generally have longer lifespans and they offer more flexible design options, allowing specific patterns to make their range and field of vision customizable to specific driving needs. Drawbacks of LED headlamps include their high price, regulatory concerns and their high heat output affecting plastic headlamp housings.

Another avenue being explored by automotive companies comes in the form of the camera. By using external cameras and other sensors positioned around the vehicle, automakers have made it possible to see what is behind you, in your blind spots or out in front of you. Back-up cams have become fairly commonplace, allowing motorists to spot obstacles or people directly behind their vehicle that might otherwise be hard to see behind blindspots or below the rear windows.

Side-view cameras are a fairly new feature available on some upscale vehicles. They are usually mounted on the sideview mirrors and allow easier parking, but can also be used for advanced systems that help spot vehicles in your blindspots. These side sensors have also been used for lane departure warning systems that can monitor lane lines and alert a driver when he or she inadvertently crosses those lines.

Another use for external cameras and sensors is forward vision enhancement. While some bumper mounted systems currently in use are limited to parking assistance, front prism cameras have also been used to detect cross-traffic at blind intersections. Rolls-Royce is one manufacturer that uses such a system to relay the view to the left and right of the vehicle on an in-car display screen. Other systems that use forward facing sensors include adaptive cruise control, collision avoidance braking systems, and even night vision.

One of the latest and most futuristic innovations in enhanced driver vision was just unveiled by General Motors. It's a new heads-up-display (HUD) that they are developing for production in a few years. GM R&D, along with Carnegie Mellon University and The University of Southern California are working on the system, which uses data gathered from an array of vehicle sensors and cameras to project laser-generated images directly onto the windshield, just like in a proper spaceship.

“We’re looking to create enhanced vision systems,” says Thomas Seder, group lab manager-GM R&D, that “allows us to highlight objects in the real world.”

According to Seder, the enhanced vision system is comprised of a variety of forward-looking sensors -- infrared sensors, cameras, radar, and night vision equipment. That equipment records what's in front of the vehicle and relays that information to laser-generating equipment inside the vehicle. The unit analyzes the data and projects highlight lines that better define or identify those objects deemed worthy of extra driver attention. It can better define lane lines, identify obstacles in the road, point out animals at the roadside, or even highlight a destination building based on GPS route information. There are also cameras inside the vehicle to monitor the driver's position, helping to align the highlights over the corresponding objects in the real world.

It may sound like science fiction, but GM is already showing a working prototype and says production should begin in just a few short years. Combined with other technologies, like intelligent lighting, side- and rear-view cameras, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warnings, collision avoidance braking systems and the like, the car of the not-too-distant future may be able to virtually drive itself.

The car of the future could conceivably rely on cameras and external sensors to provide all of the outward views for a driver, eliminating the need for glass windows and windshields. Display screens could take their place, providing a variety of real-world and computer-generated information for the driver and passengers. Vehicle design could change dramatically, with no concern for A-pillar widths or rear-view mirrors. Although that may be several decades away, the current innovations in enhanced vision are helping to make it easier than ever for drivers to see better, in any direction and in any conditions.

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