Crash-Avoidance Radar for Tomorrow's Cars
Technology that started in the sky may have safety applications down on the highway
SOUTH DEERFIELD, MASS.
IF the car of the near future is a lot ``smarter'' than the one you're driving now, some credit may go to a small Massachusetts company that has its origins about as far from where the rubber hits the road as possible - in the study of stars and galaxies.Skip to next paragraph
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In the 1970s, researchers with the Five College Radio Astronomy Observatory in western Massachusetts devised radio receivers that were smaller and less expensive than the large dish antennas typically in use. It was partly a matter of economic necessity, says Richard Huguenin, then a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and head of the observatory.
But in the process of building these tools to capture and analyze millimeter-length radio waves coming from outer space, Dr. Huguenin and his colleagues learned a lot about possible down-to-earth applications of this technology.
Those possibilities led Huguenin to found Millitech Corporation in 1982. Though the company still has a ``core'' business in supplying millimeter-wave components for scientific research and for the aerospace industry, it is moving toward a much different and quickly developing field: crash-avoidance radar for automobiles.
According to Huguenin, Millitech is in the final stages of designing a radar unit that will be attached to the front of automobiles, behind the grille or bumper. This small cylindrical device - enclosing an antenna and electronic circuitry - will send out a millimeter-wave signal that will bounce off approaching objects and return to the unit, which will warn the driver - with lights, buzzers, or both - of potential collision situations.
The safety benefits of such a system could be substantial. A United States Department of Transportation study in 1990 found that a half-second earlier warning would reduce rear-end and intersection collisions by 50 percent.
In more advanced designs, the radar would interact with cruise control and antilock brakes, trigger a change in the vehicle's speed, and automatically maintain a safe distance between cars.
Millitech's crash-avoidance radar has been in development for four years. Other firms have been at the task even longer, and one competitor, VORAD Safety Systems Inc. in San Diego, already has a product on the market. VORAD's radar unit uses essentially the same technology as Millitech's, though it is somewhat larger in size and employs lower frequency signals.
VORAD's first customer was Greyhound, which decided in 1992 to mount the system on its entire fleet of buses. That has put the radar through more than 250 million miles of road testing, notes VORAD's President Paul Bouchard. The system Mr. Bouchard's company offers for large commercial vehicles, trucks as well as buses, includes side- and rear-mounted antennas to cover the large blind spots that truckers and bus drivers have to deal with.
Greyhound spokeswoman Liz Dunn says the company credits the VORAD system with helping to push its ``accident ratio'' - accidents per million miles of driving - to a 25-year low last year. As of November, the company had 4.32 accidents per million miles, compared with 10.63 logged in November of '92 and 34.46 for the same month in '91.