A new radar device could warn drivers of road hazards

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Ask any motorist about the worst weather for driving. Heavy rain, snow, or fog are likely to be mentioned. Windshield wipers can help motorists see in the worst downpour, and snow tires make it easier to get around in a blizzard. But until now, there was little one could do when the air turned to pea soup - except pull over and wait. For truckers and other long-distance travelers, taking a break can be difficult.

A new device could change that. Mounted on the dashboard just like a radar detector, the Rashid Radar Collision Warning System is the world's first practical collision avoidance system for trucks and passenger cars.

The device shares some basic technology with the commonplace radar detector, but there is one big difference. It not only receives signals; it transmits a thin microwave beam in front of a vehicle and the reflections from obstacles ahead tells the device's computer whether there is a danger of a collision.

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The idea for the warning system came to George E. Rashid Sr., the late founder of Vehicle Radar Safety Systems Inc., when he was driving home one night in 1947 and found himself stuck in a dense fog.

``He had to pull over to wait for a trailer so they could follow its taillights,'' says Mr. Rashid's son, Jack, who now runs the company with two other brothers. ``He turned to my mother and said `if they can have radar in the sky to guide airplanes, they can have it for cars and trucks on the road.'''

It took the senior Rashid five years to perfect his first working model, and because it relied on bulky vacuum tubes, it did not leave much room in the car for passengers.

Today, micro-electronics have cut the warning unit's size to about that of a pack of playing cards. There is also a small antenna mounted under a car or truck's grille, and a small signal-processing unit, also hidden out of the way.

Essentially, the radar warning system is designed to alert a driver when his car is approaching the point where he must apply the brakes to avoid a collision.

According to a car's speed and its distance from an obstacle, Jack Rashid explains, ``the system will give you safe braking distance, not following distance, because you don't want it to go off when you're merging into traffic.''

The concept may sound simple, but in practice the radar warning system has to rely on some sophisticated programming. For one thing, it ignores vehicles parked just to the side of the road. It can tell when a driver is going through a curve at the proper speed, so as not to be triggered by the guard rail along the side of the road.

``The computer measures the angle at which you're driving, even if you're looking right at the guard rail, and measures the geometry of your turn. And if you're safe, it won't give a warning,'' Rashid says.

It can also adapt to changing road conditions, giving a warning sooner when the road is icy or wet.

When the unit detects an impending collision, it sounds a buzzer and then flashes a light. An updated model, expected on the market late this year, will also feature a digital display indicating how far away the car is from an obstacle.

The radar warning system has been available since mid-1985, although until recently Rashid had limited its sales to trucking and bus fleets such as the Free Enterprise Bus system of Cleveland. Rashid considers fleets the most likely users and the best means of extend in-the-field testing.

``Within the next couple months, we'll be looking for dealers to market our product as an after-market option to individual truck owner-operators,'' Rashid says. By next year, Rashid says he hopes to begin selling to the passenger car market as well, thanks to a new, smaller antenna unit that will not require a car owner to cut any holes in the automobile's grille - as today's unit does.

The price for the current passenger car model is $558; while the more rugged and more powerful truck unit costs $965.

As one measure of success, Rashid notes that several Michigan-based insurance companies, Citizens Insurance and Michigan Mutual, are offering discounts to drivers using the device.

As another sign, Rashid notes that one of the leading radar detector manufacturers, Ohio-based Cincinnati Microwave, has begun advertising that its own speed trap warning system will not be falsely triggered by radar emissions from the Rashid warning device.

``If they didn't think we were going to sell a lot of our units, they wouldn't be doing this,'' Rashid says.

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