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See Inside July 2011

Patent Watch

Patent No. 7,893,89



Walter Giordani Getty Images

Device for avoiding a collision in a lane-change maneuver of a vehicle: It’s not quite KITT, the artificially intelligent Trans Am that starred alongside David Hasselhoff in the 1980s television show Knight Rider, but a newly patented computerized driving system takes a step toward the car as driving companion. Not only will it upbraid you when you are about to make a boneheaded lane change, it will actually take control of the steering wheel and prevent a collision.

The device, patent No. 7,893,89, was developed by a team of engineers at Germany’s Continental Corporation. It relies on cameras embedded in a car’s side mirrors. The cameras stream video to a computer, perhaps located behind the dashboard, equipped with object-recognition software that scans every 66 milliseconds for the shapes of approaching vehicles. Once it identifies a vehicle, the system tracks the approaching car’s changing geometric relation to other visual cues on the horizon to determine its approach speed and distance.

When a driver begins to make a turn into a neighboring lane that the computer believes will result in a collision, it delivers a warning message, “acoustically, visually or both in parallel,” says Stefan Lüke, the lead engineer on the project. If that warning is ignored, the computer will deliver another caution through vibrations in the steering wheel. It will then add additional resistance and finally apply countertorque to the steering column, effectively preventing the car from changing lanes. “It feels like driving against a wall,” Lüke says. “It will push you back into your lane.”

BMW recently debuted a system that tracks approaching vehicles using radar and applies a warning vibration to the steering column. But it does not have the capacity to push the car back into its lane. Lüke predicts that Continental’s version, which also works with radar, will appear in its first vehicle “within the year,” although he declines to name the model or car manufacturer that plans to deploy it.

The emergence of electromechanical steering systems, which are increasingly replacing traditional hydraulics in vehicles, makes such computerized interventions easier to implement. Meanwhile high-resolution cameras continue to drop in price, making the system more cost-effective, Lüke says. Soon all that will separate your average driver from the 1980s-era Michael Knight will be a “turbo boost” and a few cans of hair spray.

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