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Who Taught YOU to Drive?

Cameras Part II: New technology will require new rules

International driving rules set in 1968 say a driver must be “in control” of a vehicle.  With  Google’s introduction of a self-driving car, perhaps it’s time for an update.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press/File

International driving rules set in 1968 say a driver must be “in control” of a vehicle. With Google’s introduction of a self-driving car, perhaps it’s time for an update.

You can’t talk about safety features in new cars without highlighting the role cameras now play. As mentioned in my last column, tiny lenses built into the bases of rear-view mirrors and trunk doors help drivers see everything from what’s behind them when backing up to speed-limit signs.

But two points made by car-camera guru Andy Whydell surprised me. The first is that, while car cameras can do sophisticated things, they are for the most part extremely simple devices, with a top resolution of about one megapixel. (A cellphone camera could easily have five times that resolution.) Rarely do they shoot high-definition video, he added.

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The other surprise is more of a shock: Your car could be outfitted with a camera that could “see” potential accidents before you do and stop your car in time to avoid them, even at highway speeds. But you won’t find a car with such potentially life-saving technology on the market, because it would be illegal.

Back in 1968, when air conditioning in a car was considered high-tech, the United Nations passed a treaty laying out a general set of international road rules.

“It’s called the Vienna Convention, which states that the driver must be ‘in control’ of the vehicle at all times,” said Whydell, a senior manager at TRW Automotive, one of the world’s biggest automotive suppliers and a leading car-camera maker.

Those words — the treaty reads, “Every driver shall at all times be able to control his vehicle” — make it illegal for your car to step in to save you so long as there’s any chance you can avoid the accident under your own power.

Though the United States didn’t sign the treaty, it did sign a 1949 treaty containing the same mandate about drivers being under control. European and American auto makers adhere to this “in control” rule, Whydell said.

To me, the rule is in need of an update, or some other agreement has to be reached that puts safety first. Whydell said he foresees such a change, especially now that “self-driving” vehicles, such as Google’s famous test car, are a reality.

As I wrote in my last column, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has announced an initiative aimed at making car cameras and their related safety technology standard items on future vehicles. Maybe that’s where rule changes will come from.

For today’s reading, a bit more on cameras.

Twice as effective

I got turned on to cameras while checking out the latest 2013 floor models at the New England auto show this winter. Several vehicles also boasted onboard radar or LIDAR systems, the latter using lasers instead of radio waves, to “see” what’s in front of the car.

Are such systems better than camera-based ones? I asked Whydell.

“The camera is very good at certain tasks,” he began. “It’s very good at estimating . . . where an object is relative to the center line of the vehicle, and the camera is also very good at classifying objects. It can look at an object’s outline or perimeter or shape, and say, ‘Yep. I’m pretty sure that’s a pedestrian or that’s a truck or a car or a lane marking.’ ”

Radar and LIDAR systems, on the other hand, excel at measuring distances, such as how far an object is in front of a vehicle, or whether it’s getting closer or farther away.

“It can actually measure that directly, where the camera has to estimate or interpolate that information by comparing successive frames,” Whydell said. “So for certain tasks, the camera is really the best solution. Am I centered in the lane? Am I about to cross the lane? Can I see a pedestrian? Where the radar is really good at relative speed and distance.”

The most advanced (and usually, the most expensive) cars combine cameras and radar“to get the best of both worlds,” Whydell said.

Turned off

There’s yet another fact that really surprised me about onboard cameras and their safety technology: Drivers almost always have the ability to turn them off.

Why would anyone do that? Well, some of the high-tech safety features I reviewed in my last column — forward collision warnings and lane-departure warnings among them — use re-sounding bells and whistles to alert drivers to potential danger. Those alarms can prove annoying over time, not only to a driver, but to passengers as well.

“That’s one of the challenges for TRW and the vehicle manufacturers and the providers of this equipment,” Whydell said. “It’s trying to find a way of giving the information to a driver in a way they find useful, and they like, so they want to keep the system turned on. Something that just beeps and buzzes, if it’s going to annoy you and you turn it off, the benefit is lost.”

It’s something the federal government could address as it begins the process — typically, a few years, Whydell said — of creating industry standards for such technology.

Snowed over

Given how tough this winter was, I had to ask whether car cameras work when there’s snow on vehicles, or on roads?

“Typically . . . a camera is mounted behind the rear view mirror, so they’re in the area that’s cleaned by windshield wipers,” Whydell said. “If your windshield is covered in dirt and snow and you can’t see, then the camera probably can’t see, either.”

Exception to the rule?

Back in 2008, I test-rode a Volvo that stopped itself if you failed to apply the brakes before hitting a barrier. The feature was revolutionary at the time, but has since been adopted by several manufacturers under the generic term “automatic emergency braking,” often using cameras to detect objects that are in the way.

The car I drove stopped only when traveling at a very low speed — 10 m.ph. or slower — a caveat that still applies to automatic emergency-braking systems, including those that stop cars from hitting objects when in reverse.

How are such safety systems exempt from international edicts that a driver must be in control of the vehicle?

Whydell didn’t know, but I’ll be sure to find out the answer, and report back.

Peter DeMarco can be reached at demarco@globe.com. His Facebook page is “Who Taught You to Drive?” and he can be followed on Twitter at @whotaughtU2driv.
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