Continental’s Solution to Wrong-Way-Driver Crashes Could Be a Bargain Lifesaver

Continental’s Solution to Wrong-Way-Driver Crashes Could Be a Bargain Lifesaver

What’s a life worth? The answer probably depends on the life in question. Young or old? Related to me or not? Well, relax, this isn’t another robocar-chooses-nuns-or-baby-carriage treatise. It’s a tale of two technologies aimed at saving 300 to 400 lives per year—but at dramatically different costs.

The first is the reverse camera, which became mandatory as of May 1, 2018. An NHTSA study published just before Congress enacted the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act mandating a 10-year phase-in of reverse cameras pegged the average annual fatality rate for back-over accidents in all passenger vehicles at 362, noting that 44 percent of these were children under age 5.

A 2017 NHTSA study tallying the cost per vehicle of various safety systems, pegged the cost of backup cameras at $27.19 per car and $38.53 per light truck. The back-over deaths haven’t dropped to zero, but let’s pretend they did. Multiplying those dollar-cost figures by total car and light truck sales for 2019 results in an annual cost to society that tops a half-billion dollars. That divides out to $1.6 million per life. Totally worth it if it’s your kiddo or one destined to cure a future cancer you’ll suffer, but undeniably pricey.

A similar annual death rate applies to wrong-way-driver accidents on divided highways—295 crashes resulting in 389 deaths according to NTSB and Institute of Transportation Engineers analysis of 2004-2017 data pulled from NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) database. These wrecks are usually catastrophic and happen mostly at night, with 75 percent involving alcohol and 31 percent occurring between midnight and 3 a.m.—right after the bars close.

Continental is working to develop a wrong-way-driver warning system comprising automotive-grade radar sensors, computing chips, and telematics equipment that all runs at low voltage with modest power demands that a small solar array should be able to provide.

The whole works would be compact enough to mount to existing exit-ramp sign poles. Long- and short-range radar units are used, the former featuring a 20-degree field of view and 820-foot range as required by adaptive cruise/emergency braking systems. The latter boasts a 150-degree field of view and 330-foot range as required for blind-spot/rear cross-traffic alert systems.

These devices sense traffic on the off-ramp and in the adjacent lanes of travel (six-lane highways may need additional radar units). The sensors inform a chip on the pole that assesses each object’s size, speed, and direction of travel, ruling out animals, pedestrians, bicyclists, or vehicles slowly reversing to a missed exit. The chip then communicates this info to the cloud via cellular or DSRC communication, where a “heat map” of traffic is generated so that temporary lane closures involving opposite-direction traffic don’t cause false alarms.

When a vehicle is detected entering the highway via an off-ramp or driving the wrong way down the regular lanes of traffic, an alert is sent out to the immediate area (probably a 5-mile radius) via telematics. Such messages will be received onboard the newest vehicles by V2X communications receivers that are just beginning to roll out, but they can also be transmitted via smartphone apps like Waze or Google Maps, and it’s conceivable that a system like the one currently used to transmit Amber Alerts could be narrowly focused on cell-phone users in the immediate vicinity of a wrong-way driver.

Continental quotes OpenStreetMap data suggesting there are about 58,000 exit ramps in the U.S. Multiplying that number by a targeted system cost of $1,000 per exit ramp yields a number that’s almost exactly one-tenth our annual spend on backup cameras, or about $147,000 per life for the first year. But this infrastructure will last for years, dramatically lowering the per-life costs over time. Each unit also costs less than the price of a DUI ticket. Congress should fund this bargain lifesaver.

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