New Ford Tech Shines Light Where Drivers Need It

Ford Motor Company has developed a new lighting system that can illuminate hazards on the road — even those that are not in the direct line of travel of the vehicle — better than conventional headlights.

Ford on Friday unveiled the Camera-Based Advanced Front Lighting System, which can widen the beam from headlines at junctions and roundabouts, and help draw the driver’s attention to pedestrians, cyclists and animals that are in the vehicle’s path — or even off the road.

Building upon Ford’s Adaptive Front Light System, as well as its Traffic Sign Recognition, the new technology can improve drivers’ nighttime visibility. The system utilizes GPS information to illuminate bends and dips in the road. A forward-facing video camera mounted in the rear-view mirror base can detect lane markings, predict the road’s curvature, and light it accordingly.

“Many people who drive at night have had to quickly react to someone or something suddenly appearing in the road — as if from nowhere,” said Ken Washington, vice president of Ford Research and Advanced Engineering.

Adaptive Systems

Ford is not the first automaker to head down the road with such a system. Audi, BMW and Mercedes already have released similar systems in Europe.

Where the Ford system differs somewhat is that it utilizes two spotlights in place of traditional fog lights. The infrared cameras — one in the car’s grille in addition to the one on the mirror — scan for pedestrians and animals.

Up to eight objects can be tracked. Their heat signatures are shown on a display, color-coded to indicate whether they pose a risk and the degree of danger — for example, if they might enter the car’s path.

When the sensors detect movement, either in the road or even off to the side, the spotlights are directed to illuminate the object. The extra blast of light makes objects more visible and can be reassuring to pedestrians.

“The flash from the spotlight can let a person outside the car know that they’ve been seen,” said Jeremy Carlson, senior analyst at IHS.

This technology could be helpful not only for cars that have a driver, but also for autonomous vehicles, he told TechNewsWorld.

“This will absolutely play into the future of self-driving cars,” Carlson added.

Driver-to-Driver Safety

Ford’s system is designed so as not to present a hazard to other drivers. It automatically adjusts the headlight beam angle and intensity to match the driving environment. Glare-free highbeam technology can detect vehicles ahead, and fade out light that otherwise might dazzle or distract oncoming drivers.

The system includes a high beam control that detects oncoming vehicles and automatically switches to dipped beam, then switches back to high beam once the vehicle has passed.

Ford’s system also can ensure that drivers aren’t taken by surprise by a bend in the road.

“This camera-based system can determine what needs to be illuminated, and it can look at the curvature of the road,” said Carlson, “so that speaks to the capability of the system.”

GPS lets the vehicle know what is coming well in advance, Carlson noted, “such as road with an upcoming curve.”

The data points can be stored in the vehicle and sent to the cloud, making it easy to download them to other vehicles that have similar systems, he added.

Regulatory Concerns

Ford’s Camera-Based Advanced Front Lighting System is now in the predevelopment stage. The technology will be available in the near term, the company has said, but it would need regulatory approval to become street-legal stateside.

The DoT National Highway Safety Administration’s Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 108, which regulates automotive lighting, signaling and reflective devices, prohibits the type of headlamps used in Europe. The ban addresses the angle of the lamps specifically, but it also limits the adoption of LED and other lighting solutions.

“The regulations haven’t changed in years, and yet it governs everything that you can have in the market,” said Stephen Spivey, program manager for automotive and transportation at Frost & Sullivan.

“It isn’t something that regulators should be against,” he told TechNewsWorld. “In fact, I would anticipate that the political power that automakers have could get the lighting standards updated.”

The slow adoption of anything other than traditional high-beam/low-beam lighting in cars has been due largely to cost rather than regulations, Spivey added.

Convergence Technology

The use of adaptive lighting, which is made possible only via its connectivity with advanced sensors, likely will be just one more key to the future of autonomous or self-driving cars.

“The autonomous vehicle is the end point, and this will require a convergence of numerous systems,” said IHS Automotive’s Carlson, “and adaptive lighting with cameras is a part of it. You need the sensing element and visibility to make it viable. Lighting is very useful for a driver, but it is also useful for an autonomous car as well, and anyone who needs to see a car coming at them.”

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who has covered consumer electronics, technology, electronic entertainment and fitness-related trends for more than a decade. His work has appeared in more than three dozen publications, and he is the co-author of Careers in the Computer Game Industry (Career in the New Economy series), a career guide aimed at high school students from Rosen Publishing. You can connect with Peter on Google+.

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