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Build more ‘smart’ cars, U.S. urges

High-tech devices called key to avoiding accidents

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WASHINGTON — The federal government is challenging the auto industry to step up efforts to develop vehicles that use technology to help drivers avoid accidents.

More than three-quarters of all accidents are due to driver error, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Better technology would dramatically reduce that number, Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater said Wednesday.

High-tech cruise control, crash-avoidance systems, night-vision enhancements and other types of smart technology already are available as add-ons to some high-end vehicles.

Slater set a goal of 10 years for the auto industry to install the technology in at least 10 percent of all passenger vehicles and 25 percent of commercial vehicles sold in the United States.

Smart technology "means real possibilities not just for reducing injuries and fatalities from crashes but eliminating them all together," Slater said. "What it means for transportation in America and around the world is literally something we cannot fathom."

Bob Lange, engineering director of the General Motors Corp. Safety Center, said it is possible to reach Slater's goal.

"That probably is not unreasonable, and it may even be possible to exceed that goal if we as manufacturers are able to make them affordable," he said. "We think there is consumer demand for them."

Toyota, Ford, Mercedes and Jaguar now offer "adaptive cruise control" on some vehicles. It tracks the car ahead, slowing down and speeding up automatically to maintain a safe distance in variable highway traffic.

Eaton Corp.'s VORAD — Vehicle Onboard Radar — detects stationary objects through fog, rain, snow, darkness and smoke. It is in use on some commercial trucks.

General Motors Corp. offers a night-vision system as an option on its DeVille Cadillacs that uses infrared technology to detect people or animals in the darkness or past the glare of an oncoming car's headlights. The images are projected in black and white on a small screen that is projected on the windshield.

Honda has said it is developing an Intelligent Driver Support system to "see" the road through a tiny camera on the windshield and help steer the car down the middle of its lane. A computer picks out lines on the highway surface and nudges the car's steering wheel in the right direction.

Smart technology is not confined to vehicles. Communication systems at intersections, perhaps in the road or traffic signals, could detect the position and motion of vehicles. The system would alert systems in oncoming vehicles so they could avoid dangerous situations.

"This will soon become the norm for people traveling in areas that are more congested," said Roger King, spokesman for the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. "This relies on relatively inexpensive, albeit sophisticated technologies that are going into vehicles now."

Slater was the keynote speaker at a Society of Automotive Engineers meeting dedicated to the Intelligent Vehicle Initiative, a 9-year-old government-industry program aimed at improving automobile technology.

Slater announced the Department of Transportation and GM will spend $150,000 to look into ways to link emergency services with the global positioning technology now in some cars.

"All too often crash victims die or their injuries become more critical because no one who could help knew that the crash occurred or the EMS personnel couldn't locate the crash site," Slater said.

On the Net: www.its.dot.gov