On a dark road, traditional headlights might help drivers see what’s directly in front of a car, but they don’t shine very far ahead, and they can’t help much with anything off to the side–like someone walking a dog or riding a bike. But lights, like all parts of our cars, are getting smarter.
Two new lights in development at Ford spot people or animals in the road a few extra seconds in advance, so there’s more time to swerve or hit the brakes. “Both technologies could allow for detecting other road users earlier on unlit roads, in particular all the road users who might not be equipped with illumination such as bicyclists and pedestrians,” says Michael Koherr, a research engineer at the Ford innovation center in Europe that’s developing the technology.
One of the prototypes uses an infrared camera in front of the car to simultaneously track up to eight people or animals. If a deer–or a couple of cyclists–is particularly close or in the path of the car, the system will shine a spotlight on them, light up a stripe on the road surface in their direction, and a warning will glow on the dashboard.
Another technology widens the beam of lights at intersections or bends in the road, so it’s easier to see anyone or anything coming from the side. The system can use a camera to recognize lane markings and predict curves, and also uses data from GPS to customize lighting for a particular route. On unfamiliar roads, the car’s navigation system stores new details as it drives, so it can use the same light pattern the next time.
These aren’t the first attempts to better illuminate pedestrians. Mercedes rolled out “Active Night View Assist” a decade ago, using infrared lights to detect any warm-blooded creature in the road and highlight a warning on the dashboard. By 2010, the system also could also flash a quick spotlight on the road, so the driver could see whoever was in front, and the pedestrian also got a warning. BMW and Audi have similar systems.
How much can it help reduce crashes? Research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that collision warning tech can cut accidents by 7%-10%. If a car can also automatically brake, that can go up to 15%.
Ford, for example, already has technology in cars that can brake if it senses a pedestrian. And ultimately, fully self-driving cars might be able to avoid every crash by themselves. “Our radar- and camera-based technologies are the first steps toward our vision of automated vehicles that still keep the driver in the loop to take control of the vehicle, if needed,” Koherr says. “In the meantime, we continue to develop technologies that allow for more semi-autonomous capabilities.”