The third eye in your car [Archives:2008/1202/Reportage]

October 27 2008

Rachelle Kliger
The Media Line

An innovative warning system aims to make roads safer and dramatically cut down the number of traffic accidents worldwide. Mobileye, with its R&D based in Israel, has created a chip, which “recognizes” potential hazards on the road and issues audio warnings to the drivers. The product could one day become a compulsory feature in automobiles, much like seatbelts.

Motor vehicle “accidents” are the leading cause of “death by injury” in the world today and are recognized as a major and growing global health burden.

According to World Health Organization (WHO) estimates, in 2002 nearly 1.2

million people died in road crashes worldwide and between 20 and 50 millionwere injured.

In 2004 more than 40,600 people were killed in traffic accidents in the United States alone.

So when new technology is developed that promises to lower traffic death rates, it attracts serious attention.

A computer chip and a tiny camera not much bigger than a dime installed on the windshield behind your car's rear-view mirror may now make the difference between life and death.

The Netherlands-based Mobileye Vision Technologies has developed an inexpensive hi-tech driver assistance system called Mobileye AWS (advance warning system), which can provide drivers with early warnings of potential road hazards.

Founded by an Israeli, with its R&D based in Israel, the company says the system has the potential to lower accident rates and teach people how to be “smarter” drivers.

The images generated from a front-facing camera are analyzed by the system's computer chip, which has been “taught” to recognize potential hazards such as cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles and pedestrians, and uses audio warnings to aid the driver in recognizing and maintaining safe distances from these threats.

The chip, roughly the size of a Zippo lighter, has the processing capability of two Pentium computers but comes at a much lower price.

The aftermarket product line works day, night and in inclement weather, and features

Forward Collision Warning that prevents collision with vehicles ahead by alerting drivers to both moving and stationary vehicles while filtering out cars in adjacent lanes that pose no threats.

Alerts are provided up to 2.7 seconds before collision – enough time to safely stop and avoid an accident.

It also features Headway Monitoring and Warning, providing distance indication to drivers and Lane Departure Warning that alerts drivers when they inadvertently drift from their lane due to drowsiness or other factors.

Other technologies in different stages of development include lane change assist that monitors the speed and distance of overtaking vehicles and tells you when it is safe to switch lanes, and pedestrian protection that identifies people in the vehicle's path as well as those on the sidewalk who may enter the roadway.

For example, the system detects the distance to the vehicle immediately ahead – generally targeted as posing the primary threat. As the driver nears the vehicle in front of him, an image on the display panel changes progressively from green to orange to red.

Upon advancing beyond a minimal safe following distance, the driver will hear an audio warning announcing that he or she must reduce speed and fall back. The audio caution will cease the moment the driver steps on the brakes.

Though there is a small display panel mounted on the vehicle's dashboard, most of the warnings are audible and the driver need not remove his or her eyes from the road in order to make use of the system.

“Studies by auto makers, government and non-government organizations have shown that giving sufficient warning can prevent up to 80 percent of all traffic accidents,” Iftah Amit, VP for Sales and Aftermarket Products for Mobileye Vision Technologies told The Media Line.

“Mobileye is the only technology developer that provides the broadest range of accident prevention alerts in a single system,” he said.

The company aims to provide optimal safety for every vehicle and not just for luxury cars. It uses inexpensive components to make it attractive both to automotive manufacturers and to the average car owner.

The final retail cost to the consumer is under $1,000. The company is not disclosing figures on how many units of the product it has sold to date.

The system is the result of a challenge thrown out to Mobileye co-founder and chairman of the board Prof. Amnon Shashua. After giving a lecture to one of the leading car companies in Japan, Shashua was asked if he would be able to develop an automotive vision system using two cameras.

He accepted the challenge, went back to his lab and soon discovered that he was able to do the job with just one camera.

Road testing of the system was conducted in Israel, Europe and the United States.

During development, Mobileye found there were no existing cameras that could deal with the complications posed by road travel, such as strong glare and rapidly moving shadows. The company was forced to develop its own camera and accompanying software.

The company is currently running a pilot program with the Dutch government in which the camera has been installed in 2,000 trucks, with a view to having it fixed in an additional one thousand.

As of 2007 Mobileye's systems have been installed in production vehicles on selected automakers' assembly lines in the hope it will eventually evolve into a standard auto safety feature.

The system has been installed into several models of BMW, Volvo and GM.

Mobileye Vision Technologies is also cooperating with insurance companies to bring down insurance costs because it does in effect prevent or at least reduce the number of traffic accidents.

Much like seatbelts, the company's product could one day be a compulsory safety feature required by insurance companies.

The product is currently sold in several countries, including the United States, The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Australia and Chile, and is installed in both commercial and passenger vehicles.

Making sophisticated safety systems such as these a regulatory feature is probably just a matter of time, but whether Mobileye's development will be the leading product on the market depends on how much of an edge the company can maintain over its competitors, analysts in the motor industry say.

Nitzan Avivi, a technology writer for the Israeli Auto motor magazine, said the concept behind Mobileye's warning system was to create a cheaper alternative to radar-based safety systems, which up until 10 years ago were very costly.

'Today, the radar systems are not as expensive, and Mobileye's system isn't as low-priced as they thought it would be, although still cheaper than the radar system,” Avivi says.

“So the economic justification has somewhat diminished, but it still has features that the radar system doesn't have and it does have a technological justification.”

In terms of user-friendliness, Avivi praised the system as being “idiot-proof.”

He reckons that eventually the safety systems that will most likely catch on will be those that combine both radar technology and imaging, such as a system that Volvo has already installed into some of its models.

“Ten years ago no one believed the electronic stability program (ESP) would be regulatory and now it's mandatory in the United States and in Europe. In light of trials that have been carried out on both heavy vehicle fleets and private vehicles, I believe this system will be regulatory,” he said. “Its impact on safety is significant and Mobileye will benefit because they'll be one of the alternatives.”