Ther­mal cam­eras could help cars see well at night

USA TODAY US Edition - - MONEY - Eric D. Lawrence

No one was cross­ing Kercheval Av­enue on The Hill in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michi­gan, as a mini­van made its way through the shop­ping district one evening this fall, but peo­ple were clearly nearby.

They could be seen there on the lap­top screen from in­side the ve­hi­cle, their pres­ence con­firmed by glow­ing im­ages cap­tured by a ther­mal cam­era.

But the pedes­tri­ans weren’t on the street, and it took a mo­ment to re­al­ize that they were ac­tu­ally on the side­walk, ob­scured by dec­o­ra­tive plant­ings and the dark­ness that coated ev­ery­thing not il­lu­mi­nated.

It wasn’t a great night for spot­ting pedes­tri­ans on this par­tic­u­lar week­night on a drive through a cou­ple of the Grosse Pointes and the east side of Detroit. Maybe the pan­demic was keep­ing peo­ple in­side. Those who were out, how­ever, were not hard to see, at least on the screen.

The eye­ball view through the wind­shield was a dif­fer­ent story, with dark­ness pro­vid­ing an ef­fec­tive cam­ou­flage. And dark­ness can be deadly for pedes­tri­ans.

Most pedes­tri­ans who die in crashes are killed at night, but night­time has been when the tech­nol­ogy de­signed to pre­vent pedes­trian crashes strug­gles most.

Last year, AAA re­vealed some star­tling de­fi­cien­cies in driver as­sis­tance sys­tems de­signed to pro­tect pedes­tri­ans.

At night, sev­eral test ve­hi­cles equipped with au­to­matic emer­gency brak­ing sys­tems and pedes­trian de­tec­tion were found to be “com­pletely in­ef­fec­tive.” Rather than bash the au­tomak­ers’ ef­forts, AAA en­cour­aged con­tin­ued devel­op­ment of sys­tems be­cause of the scope of the pedes­trian death cri­sis in this coun­try.

But find­ing a so­lu­tion as the deaths of so many Amer­i­cans on and along our roads has con­tin­ued to rise – 6,283 men, women and chil­dren in 2018 alone, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral statis­tics – has be­come more ur­gent. The Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion even des­ig­nated Oc­to­ber as the first na­tional Pedes­trian Safety Month, an ac­knowl­edg­ment of the dan­gers faced by vul­ner­a­ble road users. A 2018 Detroit Free Press/USA TO­DAY in­ves­ti­ga­tion high­lighted the role the in­crease in large ve­hi­cles, such as SUVs, has played in the ris­ing num­ber of deaths.

Ve­hi­cle tech­nol­ogy is one way to im­prove pro­tec­tion for pedes­tri­ans at night, and a cou­ple of ther­mal imag­ing com­pa­nies are pro­mot­ing their sys­tems as the an­swer. Ther­mal imag­ing al­ready is hav­ing a bit of a mo­ment this year in light of the COVID-19 pan­demic. Ther­mal cam­eras can be used to de­tect el­e­vated body tem­per­a­tures at a dis­tance. That al­lows them to func­tion as an ini­tial screen­ing in such places as auto plants to mon­i­tor for peo­ple who could be fever­ish, a po­ten­tial symp­tom of the virus.

Re­sults of ther­mal test­ing in Michi­gan ap­pear to show prom­ise in the realm of pedes­trian de­tec­tion at night, too.

U.S.-based Flir Sys­tems, along with VSI Labs, tested an au­to­matic emer­gency brak­ing sys­tem at the Amer­i­can Cen­ter for Mo­bil­ity in Yp­si­lanti Town­ship. The tests “fused” data from ther­mal sens­ing with radar, a non-ther­mal cam­era and a com­puter net­work. The test ve­hi­cle, a Ford Fu­sion equipped with Flir’s sys­tem, man­aged to avoid heated tar­gets de­signed to ap­pear as a child or an adult in all but two tries out of more than two dozen. In the two cases where the car touched the tar­gets, it did not knock them down.

In con­trast, four other test ve­hi­cles not equipped with Flir’s tech­nol­ogy – a BMW X7, Subaru For­rester, Toyota Corolla and Tesla Model 3 – all failed in night test­ing by hit­ting the tar­gets. They per­formed much bet­ter dur­ing day­light test­ing al­though only the X7 man­aged to get through each of those tests with­out hit­ting the tar­get, ac­cord­ing to Flir.

“We were able to stop re­ally suc­cess­fully at night,” ex­plained Mike Wal­ters, a Flir vice pres­i­dent.

He de­scribed the in­stances where the Flir-equipped Fu­sion made con­tact with the tar­gets as a mi­nor touch rather than a full hit, some­thing that can be fixed with ad­just­ments to the sys­tem in fu­ture test­ing.

That would be a far cry from what was seen in videos shown as part of AAA’s test­ing, with a 2019 Chevro­let Mal­ibu, Honda Ac­cord, Tesla Model 3 and Toyota Camry plow­ing into tar­gets in many cases.

Ther­mal cam­eras have been pitched as a way to help ad­vanced driver as­sis­tance sys­tems and some­day ac­tual self­driv­ing sys­tems “see” pedes­tri­ans and even deer on the roads. But it’s the fo­cus on night­time ap­pli­ca­tions, which is what Flir and Adasky, a com­peti­tor from Is­rael, are dis­cussing. With three-quar­ters of fatal pedes­trian deaths hap­pen­ing in night­time crashes, sys­tems that work well only dur­ing day­light hours would ap­pear to have lim­ited ap­peal.

The re­cent night­time drive around Detroit’s east side and the Grosse Pointes in a mini­van equipped with Adasky’s ther­mal cam­era showed the tech­nol­ogy at work. The setup was not de­signed to brake for any­one cross­ing the road but in­stead to show via a lap­top dis­play what the cam­era can pick up. A re­porter, who had been on a pre­vi­ous drive in day­light, could see clearly on the screen when peo­ple, even in dark cloth­ing on a dark street, were nearby. In sev­eral cases, pedes­tri­ans and cyclists were very dif­fi­cult to see with the naked eye, but their heat sig­na­ture was vis­i­ble on the screen. A cou­ple of in­stances showed a slight de­lay in the im­age ap­pear­ing, but the man be­hind the wheel, Bill Grabowski, head of Adasky, North Amer­ica, said the sys­tem can be ad­justed to ac­count for that as well.

Most ex­perts pro­mote the idea of us­ing sev­eral dif­fer­ent types of sen­sors for au­to­matic emer­gency brak­ing sys­tems. Ther­mal cam­eras can de­tect peo­ple and an­i­mals in con­di­tions, such as at night and in the rain, that might be a chal­lenge for other types of sen­sors.

“It’s go­ing to fill the gap in the edge cases that all th­ese other sen­sors can’t hit,” Grabowski said of cam­eras.

David Zuby, chief re­search of­fi­cer at the In­sur­ance In­sti­tute for High­way Safety, said ther­mal tech­nol­ogy ap­pears to of­fer prom­ise, but his Vir­gini­abased group has not yet been able to do a com­par­i­son.

How­ever, Zuby said au­tomak­ers will need to ad­dress night­time driv­ing con­di­tions.

“The in­frared tech­nol­ogy might be a good tech­nol­ogy for achiev­ing that,” he said, not­ing that other com­bi­na­tions and bet­ter head­lights could work.

“It’s go­ing to fill the gap in the edge cases that all th­ese other sen­sors can’t hit.”

Bill Grabowski

Adasky, North Amer­ica


Au­to­matic emer­gency brak­ing sys­tems with pedes­trian de­tec­tion has had mixed re­sults. At night, th­ese sys­tems have been deemed in­ef­fec­tive in many cases.

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