CALL them the world's first smart buses.
A new device that Greyhound Lines plans to mount on all 2,400 of its buses will be able to spot an impending collision before the driver is even aware of what's happening. By flashing a warning light and buzzer, it will alert the driver to brake. In fact, in the not-too-distant future, the device may be able to stop a Greyhound entirely on its own.
Dubbed VORAD, for vehicle on-board radar, the system is the first step toward a new generation of smart vehicles that may someday need no help at all from their human passengers.
Greyhound president Frank Schmieder plans to announce his company's new safety system at a news conference in Washington, D.C., today. Greyhound is the first commercial user of VORAD, and will spend about $5 million, or $2,000 per unit.
"For our first order out of the box, it's pretty impressive," says Paul Bouchard, president of San Diego-based VORAD Technologies Inc. VORAD scans the roadway ahead of a vehicle using a focused radar beam. Obstacles reflect the signal back to the unit's antenna and a microprocessor then determines if the vehicle is in danger of a collision. If so, it flashes a warning light and sounds an alarm.
Studies show that if drivers had braked just a half-second earlier, as many as 40 percent of all front-end accidents - the most common type - could be avoided. That would save billions in damage and reduce deaths and injuries by thousands. "All we have to avoid is 25 percent [of the accidents involving Greyhound buses] and the system pays for itself," Mr. Schmieder says.
The VORAD system will also be able to monitor the blind spot to the right of a Greyhound bus where it is hard for a driver to spot a passing vehicle. The system will provide Greyhound with a "flight recorder." Like those found on commercial airliners, it will help the company replay the steps leading up to an accident.
Mr. Bouchard hints that VORAD could integrate still more functions: "You could incorporate the throttle and cruise control," he says, so a vehicle would automatically stay a safe distance behind the vehicle in front of it. Eventually, VORAD could even be linked directly to a vehicle's brakes. There are still many skeptics who dislike the idea of turning over control to a machine. Bouchard concedes that VORAD could be in for a spate of litigation whenever there is an accident. No system, he says, can prev ent every accident.
Still, in the years to come, experts say vehicles are only going to get smarter.
"We're going to see an explosion of this technology," says David Cole, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan.
Last month, an industry-government consortium inaugurated a year-long pilot program in Orlando dubbed TravTek. That's short for Travel Technology.
TravTek integrates computer-assisted smart cars and highways. A central traffic control center constantly collects and analyzes information about road conditions. That is flashed over a radio link to cars equipped with special on-board navigation systems. When there is a traffic jam, motorists can be advised which way to detour.
The navigation system relies on satellite guidance and digital maps written on CD-ROMs.
Navigation systems could help urban planners squeeze more traffic onto existing roadways. Eventually these Intelligent Vehicle/Highway Systems could lead to cars that effectively drive themselves. Before that happens, pioneering research must be done by companies like VORAD. Yet one of the biggest obstacles is not technology, but cost. At $2,000 each, VORAD is simply too expensive for the average consumer. Bouchard says that should change when the price falls below $750.