Ford's smart headlights swivel to identify road hazards

Innovations such as Ford’s new lighting technologies are a critical component for improving road safety.

Ford Motors wants to place road hazards in the spotlight.

The automaker is developing two lighting technologies that could reduce front-end collisions and help drivers more easily identify potential hazards on unlit roads, the company announced Friday. The move reflects a growing relationship between cars and technology that seeks to improve driver safety both in the United States and around the world.  

“Auto safety has evolved from basic seatbelts and lighting to high-tech safety features that can help drivers avoid accidents altogether,” according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). “Thanks to continuing innovation, today's vehicles are the safest in history and have contributed to year-over-year decreases in crash-related fatalities and injuries nationwide.”

While motor vehicle accidents remain a leading cause of death in the US, traffic deaths have fallen by nearly a quarter between 2004 and 2014, the NHTSA reported in December – and safety improvements in vehicles are responsible for at least part of that decline, experts say.

Advances include adaptive cruise control, which can sense vehicles ahead and adjust a driver’s speed to keep a safe following distance; automatic headlights that adjust based on a driver’s surroundings; forward collision warning systems, which use radar, laser, or camera sensors to detect when a crash is imminent and alerts the driver to act; and lane departure warning systems that let a driver know when he or she is drifting out of a lane.

The most significant change may have been the requirement in the late 2000s to begin phasing into all vehicles electronic stability control, which helps drivers keep command of the wheel and has proved effective in preventing rollover, The Wall Street Journal reported.

“These technologies, and others yet to be developed, are changing how we drive and helping to make driving safer,” safety specialist Scott Humphrey wrote in a blog for insurance consulting firm Travelers.

Ford, through its European Research and Innovation Centre in Aachen, Germany, seeks to contribute to the effort with its two new developments.

The first, a camera-based advanced front-lighting system, widens the beam at junctions and roundabouts to improve illumination – and to give drivers a heads-up when a pedestrian, a cyclist, or a wild animal might be coming round the corner. Combining two existing technologies, the new system uses GPS to provide better lighting in unlit parts of particular route. When GPS isn’t available, the technology uses a front-facing camera in the rear-view mirror base to detect lane markings and adjust the vehicle’s lights depending on the curvature of the road. Ford expects the system to be available soon.

The second innovation, called spot lighting, uses an infrared camera to identify and track up to eight people and larger animals via their body heat. The camera can detect objects up to nearly 400 feet away.

“Many people who drive at night have had to quickly react to someone or something suddenly appearing in the road – as if from nowhere,” Ken Washington, Ford’s vice president of research and advanced engineering, said in the company’s blog.

The new technologies could “help ensure the driver is quickly alerted to people or animals that could present a danger,” he added.

Of course, improved road safety has as much, if not more, to do with compliance with safety laws and restrictions for young drivers as it does with vehicle safety technology. Still, the latter is a critical component in reducing the number of deaths on the road.

“It’s really a symptom of what the industry has been doing in the last 20 years,” Sue Cischke, who retired in 2012 from Ford after 11 years in safety engineering, told The Wall Street Journal. “A lot of these technologies are [at] first options, and as they get more acceptance, they become standard.”

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