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At GM, in pursuit of a crash-proof car

John Capp leads General Motors' active safety team. We spoke to him about the sensors and technologies that are helping cars drive by themselves.
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Written by Andrew Nusca on

If one thing is sure, it's that the lowly car is getting smarter.

And it's not just support for your smartphone, either. From lane departure warnings to blind spot alerts to adaptive cruise control -- the kind that slows itself down when a deer runs across the road in front of you -- the automobile is becoming a system of systems.

By that measure, you might say John Capp has one of the more interesting jobs at General Motors. GM's director for global active safety, Capp and his team -- comprised of engineers, investors and futurists -- work on the intelligent technologies that save your tail when road conditions get dicey.

I spoke with Capp about what his team is working on in the lab.

SmartPlanet: John, how did you end up in this role?

JC: I've worked in different areas of safety here at GM for my whole career -- 25 years. I've worked on airbags, crash-worthiness, advanced things, [especially] the last three or four years I've been doing this.

Sometimes there's brand new technologies that emerge and sometimes there are current technologies that evolve.

SmartPlanet: What is your vision for the car of the future?

JC: We've talked about this vision of cars that are probably going to have the capability of driving themselves in certain situations one day.

We know how to put sensors in the vehicle. We know how to control it with them. If we can figure out how to have enough knowledge about the environment or the state of the driver -- whether they're paying attention, or intending to drive [a certain way] -- we continue to progress in the path that allows us to do more and more.

The other piece of this is this connected realm where vehicles can all talk to each other, as well as to infrastructure -- traffic lights, buildings. You can design the vehicle for this and actually avoid crashes. It involves having a radio system on all vehicles and an [underlying] infrastructure.

We've been doing research on this for a number of years.

Those two paths are the two big pieces that gives us the confidence to say that someday we'll be able to avoid most crashes. That's sort of visionary.

SmartPlanet: How far off is the autonomous vehicle?

JC: Some of the features we talk about now are building blocks toward that.

With adaptive cruise control, we're now looking ahead [of the car], with radar. We put it in the grille, and it looks down the road 150 yards or so looking for reflections of vehicles or objects out front.

Now you have a cruise control that you don't have to set on or off.

There's another progression. We take that same adaptive cruise control system, and instead of cutting it off when you get to city speeds, it actually brings you down to it. It really starts to help with convenience and fatigue.

When people use adaptive cruise control, it also has safety benefits. Cruise control keeps a steady space in front of you and improves traffic flow and fuel economy.

SmartPlanet: Infrastructure is costly to implement. What's the low-hanging fruit at the vehicle level?

JC: Yeah, it's more feasible until you get some of the governmental types and standards and things like that that enable the external pieces.

The government is very involved and interested in vehicle-to-vehicle technology. They see it as a great benefit from a safety standpoint. The cost of the communication chips is going to be less than a lot of these other technologies, so in the long run, it could be a benefit to motor vehicle safety.

This technology is more of a case of getting everybody on board and getting the stars aligned. This one is kind of a chicken or egg scenario: you need volume to see the benefits. One vehicle isn't going to offer much.

There are certain standards that need to be put in place. There's work now toward establishing a security protocol to avoid being hacked or threatened with. It's not that far off.

In the meantime, we're taking advantage of what we have on the car. We've got a portion of V2V communication available via OnStar. We need to have two-way communication, but you need to know where you're at. You have to have GPS, but a lot of vehicles already have it. With cost, GPS is part of it and two-way communication is the other part. It's not that far-fetched.

SmartPlanet: All of this technology is available on the newest cars, such as the Cadillac DTS Platinum. If volume is the goal, are retrofits to existing models a consideration?

JC: The V2V stuff, there's work being done on retrofitting models.

You could get a device and plug it in your vehicle and it would be able to do some of these types of communications functions. There absolutely can be a way to take older devices and vehicles and get them on the V2V grid.

We can imagine getting pedestrians and bicyclists onto that same system.

Now, we've got cameras on the vehicle that look ahead. We've got the sight lines zone system that uses radar to look rearward into your left and right lanes.

SmartPlanet: We talked earlier about having a vision for the future. How do you get there?

JC: You need to have a vision to know where you want to go, and you need to deal with what you can do today. We see these autonomous type features increasingly becoming available.

There's quite a bit of work done already to establish standards. The FCC has already established a frequency bandwidth for these communications, and there's an 802.11p protocol -- the basics on how to communicate are already established.

We and other manufacturers have been working pretty closely with consortium projects. There's quite a bit of work still to be done in the area of security.

SmartPlanet: Why is that?

It's always a little bit of a race. When you introduce new technology, it could have certain vulnerabilities. People are making sure that talking to vehicles is legitimate with certificates. It's a new area.

SmartPlanet: Automakers and tech companies are interesting bedfellows.

JC: The consortium is part of that. It is one of the important pieces of the puzzle that will allow us to deploy the technology some day.

The technologies do have limitations, though. For example, our camera systems need to have lane markings to alert you. If the road has three inches of snow on it, we can't see the lanes.

Some of the alert systems will only work above certain speeds, because when you're in close proximity to other vehicles, you'll get too many alerts.

We try to make sure it's what you need to know. False positives happen when you get that balance out of whack.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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