Com­mon sen­sors

A raft of soft­ware pro­tects you on the road. John Carey ex­plains the names

The Advertiser - Motoring - - COVER STORY -

SENSES were once the ba­sis for all driv­ing de­ci­sion-mak­ing. Sight, hear­ing, smell and touch were all we had to work with be­hind the wheel. Now, in to­day’s hi-tech world, sen­sors are here to help.

They may al­ready have saved you and your loved ones from dis­as­ter.

Car mak­ers be­gan us­ing them in the 1970s and ’80s, when wheel-speed sen­sors made pos­si­ble the de­vel­op­ment of anti-lock brakes, or ABS, which pre­vented the wheels lock­ing up if you braked too hard.

These were joined by steer­ing an­gle, G-force and turn­ing-rate sen­sors to cre­ate elec­tronic sta­bil­ity con­trol (ESP) in the ’90s. The sen­sors pick up when a car is los­ing con­trol and brake in­di­vid­ual wheels to keep it on the black stuff.

The Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment man­dated the fit­ment of ESC in all new cars and SUVs sold in Aus­tralia from Novem­ber 2011, some­thing worth re­mem­ber­ing when buy­ing sec­ond-hand.

To­day, sen­sors are in­creas­ingly be­ing com­bined with cam­eras and radars to save you from your­self. And the good news is that this type of tech­nol­ogy has trick­led down quickly to the af­ford­able end of the new car mar­ket.

Only a few years ago, driver as­sis­tance tech­nol­ogy was found only in up-mar­ket mod­els made by pi­o­neers in this field, such as Volvo and Mercedes-Benz. To­day it’s avail­able, ei­ther stan­dard or as an op­tion, in cars and SUVs from af­ford­able brands such as Toy­ota, Mazda, Hyundai and Holden.

Mar­ket­ing de­part­ments were al­ready work­ing over­time to come up with names for each new safety or driver-aid fea­ture en­abled by the pro­lif­er­a­tion of sen­sors. They strug­gle to come up with mem­o­rable la­bels for fam­i­lies of dig­i­tally con­nected gear. Toy­ota Safety Sense, Mazda i-Ac­tivesense and Holden Eye are just a few.

All can be very con­fus­ing for the new-car buyer. Here’s a guide to help un­tan­gle the brochure bab­ble …


When sen­sors “see” a col­li­sion haz­ard ahead, au­ton­o­mous emer­gency brak­ing slams on the car’s brakes.

Be­cause it will brake, vi­o­lently if re­quired and with­out driver in­put, AEB is re­garded as a big new de­vel­op­ment in safety with al­most mag­i­cal pow­ers. And it is.

This tech­nol­ogy has been shown to cut sig­nif­i­cantly the num­ber of crashes, in­juries and deaths on the road. It should also re­duce your an­nual car in­sur­ance pre­mium, as in­sur­ers recog­nise its abil­ity to stop nose-to-tail fender ben­ders.

AEB was born when car mak­ers teamed video cam­eras with for­ward­fac­ing radar sen­sors, which were of­ten al­ready in place to sup­port adap­tive or ac­tive cruise con­trol (see be­low). Some re­cent ex­am­ples use li­dar, which works like radar but uses light waves in­stead of ra­dio waves.

Sig­nals from both sources are typ­i­cally fed to an on-board com­puter. In the trade, this is known as sen­sor fu­sion. Soft­ware in­ter­prets in­for­ma­tion on the size, shape, speed and radar or li­dar re­flec­tiv­ity of ob­jects ahead.

Tak­ing into ac­count other avail­able data on the car’s speed and di­rec­tion, it can iden­tify a col­li­sion about to hap­pen.

When it does, an AEBe­quipped car will first beep or blink. If that doesn’t get the driver’s at­ten­tion, the next stage is usu­ally a gen­tle brake ap­pli­ca­tion. If there’s still no re­sponse, AEB hits the brakes hard to avoid the col­li­sion or min­imise im­pact speed.

Some mod­els au­to­mat­i­cally pre­pare for im­pact, tight­en­ing seat belts and tak­ing other mea­sures.

Some AEB set-ups are only de­signed for low-speed driv­ing. If you see the word City in the name it’s a sure sign that a car’s AEB is this type. The Smart City Brake Sup­port in the Mazda3 is a good ex­am­ple, op­er­at­ing from 4km/h-30km/h.

Oth­ers have a broader op­er­at­ing speed range. AEB in the lat­est Mercedes-Benz E-Class works up to 200km/h.

There’s also great vari­a­tion in how the tech per­ceives haz­ards. AEB is de­signed to recog­nise a sta­tion­ary or slow­ing ve­hi­cle ahead. The pri­mary aim of the tech­nol­ogy is to avoid rear-end col­li­sions. More ad­vanced ver­sions iden­tify, and au­to­mat­i­cally brake for, pedes­tri­ans, cy­clists and some­times large four­legged an­i­mals. Volvo of­ten takes the lead in ex­tend­ing the pow­ers of AEB in this way and Subaru does so at the more af­ford­able end of the mar­ket.


Audi’s Turn As­sist uses AEB sen­sors to pre­vent an un­ob­ser­vant driver turn­ing across the path of on­com­ing traf­fic. Now in the Q7 and A4 mod­els, it op­er­ates at 2km/h10km/h — but only if the driver is in­di­cat­ing. Volvo has sim­i­lar tech­nol­ogy in its new XC90, S90 and V90.


Ac­tive (or adap­tive) cruise con­trol is a de­sir­able driver aid, a gen­uine long-jour­ney stress re­liever that’s fit­ted in al­most ev­ery­thing with AEB. At its best, ac­tive cruise not only keeps a safe dis­tance to the car ahead in

mo­tor­way driv­ing but also au­to­mat­i­cally brakes the car to a com­plete halt and ac­cel­er­ates again in stop-and-go traf­fic.


An­other use for the video cam­era data stream re­quired by AEB, this prompts or prods the driver to stay in the lane. The cam­era must be able to recog­nise lane mark­ings, some­times an im­pos­si­bil­ity if the mark­ing are poor or the light lev­els don’t suit the cam­era. Some lane keep­ers sim­ply beep or blink and oth­ers vi­brate or nudge the steer­ing wheel. Some will even steer the car to pre­vent lane de­par­ture, though the driver can al­ways over­ride these in­puts.


Blind spot warn­ing and rear cross traf­fic alert are the generic names for tech that re­lies on ex­tra, rear-mounted, wide­beam radar sen­sors. BSW flashes a warn­ing light in the ex­ter­nal rear-view mir­rors when there’s a ve­hi­cle in the blind spot. RCTA in­ter­venes when re­vers­ing slowly out of a park­ing spot or nar­row street where the driver’s lat­eral vi­sion is ob­structed. Some sim­ply emit vis­ual and au­di­ble warn­ings. In the new Audi Q2, there will also be a jab on the brakes.


G-force sen­sors have been in cars for decades — they’re es­sen­tial for airbags and ESC to work — and man­u­fac­tur­ers are still think­ing of ex­tra uses. In a crash se­ri­ous enough to in­flate airbags, some cars au­to­mat­i­cally con­tact emer­gency ser­vices, of­ten via an on-board SIM and the mo­bile net­work, with help­ful and po­ten­tially life­sav­ing info, for ex­am­ple the pre­cise lo­ca­tion. BMW calls this tech In­tel­li­gent Emer­gency Call — at the lower end of the mar­ket, Ford has Emer­gency As­sis­tance. Even sim­pler is the tech that senses hard brak­ing and au­to­mat­i­cally sets the haz­ard lights flash­ing to warn fol­low­ing driv­ers.

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