MOTORING '96: The Millenni-Brrm; INNOVATIONS; It's Love at First Byte as Computers Do the Driving

Article excerpt

What driver wouldn't want to punch a button, sit back and read the paper while the car takes the strain and figures out the quickest way to work?

It sounds like one of H G Wells's wilder dreams, but scientists claim the intelligent car is just a few years away.

Increasing traffic speed and volume have forced most manufacturers to start developing cars that think for themselves. And route-guidance systems to avoid jams are already with us.

Soon, say the boffins, there will be intelligent cruise controls, and already the wraps are off systems that help drivers see better in the dark or in fog.

Within five years, everyday cars will even be able to warn drivers they are dozing at the wheel, or call emergency services automatically if they break down or crash.

Ford, together with the universities of Aberdeen and Loughborough, is developing a system which monitors driver alertness and, if necessary, takes effective action.

Its Driver Status Monitoring system features a tiny computer-linked camera on the fascia permanently trained on the driver's eyes to detect blink- rate, a reliable indicator of alertness.

Researchers are also working on ways of checking wakefulness by identifying the ways in which the brain decides when and how hard to operate the controls and how this alters with tiredness.

Warnings of reduced alertness could input to systems such as Ford's Intelligent Cruise Control, which maintains a safe distance from the vehicle in front.

The system sends a radar beam from a transmitter which can be locked on to the car in front.

A computer adjusts throttle and brakes to keep the car at the appropriate following distance for its speed or even stop it if the driver nods off. …