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Weatherwise wheels

Onboard observing system to promote vehicle safety, mobility, and efficiency

by David Hosansky

Everyday commutes may soon become observational deployments, thanks to a national initiative to improve driver safety and mobility. This spring in the Detroit area, NCAR scientists tested the prototype system, which ultimately will help protect drivers from being surprised by black ice, fog, and other weather hazards.

Sheldon Drobot

Sheldon Drobot. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

The system is designed to gather detailed information about weather and road conditions from moving vehicles. Within about a decade, it should enable motor vehicles equipped with wireless technology to transmit automated updates about local conditions to a central database, which will then relay alerts to other drivers in the area.

“The goal is to reduce crashes, injuries, and deaths by getting drivers the information they need about nearby hazards,” says Sheldon Drobot, the NCAR program manager in charge of the project. “The system will tell drivers what they can expect to run into in the next few seconds and minutes, giving them chances to slow down or take other action.”

NCAR’s road weather system is part of IntelliDrive, a service-marked accident-reduction initiative overseen by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). The system could alert drivers to threats that range from adverse road conditions to nearby vehicles that are moving erratically or running through red lights.

The national program brings together federal and state transportation officials, motor vehicle manufacturers, engineering and planning firms, consumer electronics companies, and others. It follows a 2004 National Research Council report, Where the Weather Meets the Road, that called for a nationwide system to monitor highway weather and warn drivers about potential hazards. The report notes that an estimated 1.5 million motor vehicle accidents annually are associated with poor weather, resulting in about 7,400 deaths and 690,000 injuries.

Onboard equipment in a test car.

Each of the test cars driving around Detroit contained onboard equipment that collects, stores, and transmits weather data. In the future, such onboard equipment will be much smaller and integrated into the car design instead of taking up trunk space. (Photo by Michael Chapman.)

For the road weather portion of IntelliDrive, vehicles will use sensors to measure atmospheric conditions such as temperature and pressure. An onboard digital memory device will record that information, along with indirect signs of road conditions, such as windshield wipers being switched on or activation of the antilock braking system.

The information will be transmitted to a central database, where it will be integrated with other local weather data and traffic observations. The processed data will then be used to update motorists in the area when hazards are present and, when appropriate, suggest alternate routes.

There are other benefits as well: such a system can alert emergency managers to hazardous driving conditions and enable state highway departments to more efficiently keep roads clear of snow. It can also help meteorologists refine their forecasts by providing them with continual updates about local weather conditions.

Motor vehicle manufacturers plan to install the onboard equipment in every new vehicle sold in the United States within a few years as part of a voluntary program to improve driving safety. The incoming data would be anonymous; officials are working on guidelines to allow drivers to opt out of the system for privacy considerations.

A deluge of data

NCAR scientists and engineers tested the weather piece of the system in April by collecting information from 11 specially equipped cars in the Detroit area that sought out bad weather, especially heavy rain and snow. Engineers will analyze the reliability of the system by comparing data from the cars with other observations from radars and weather satellites. They will also look at whether different models of cars—in this case, Jeep Cherokees, Ford Edges, and a Nissan Altima—produce comparable measurements of weather and road conditions.

“The results look very encouraging,” Drobot says. “The tests show that cars can indeed communicate critical information about weather conditions and road hazards.” During the tests, vehicles encountered snow, freezing rain, drizzle, heavy rain, and slush. The cars appear to provide additional information about road and weather conditions that more traditional instruments, such as radar, do not offer. NCAR’s Michael Chapman, who ran the Detroit test, noted, “There were locations where the radar showed decent echoes but there was no rain hitting the cars, and other spots with slightly higher reflectivity values where the drivers reported heavy rain.”

One of the biggest challenges for NCAR is to determine how to process the enormous amounts of data that could be generated by about 300 million motor vehicles. The center has worked with the U.S. Department of Defense, the aviation industry, and other organizations to analyze complex weather observations. But the new system incorporates information from far more sources, and those sources are moving.

NCAR engineers are developing mathematical formulas and other techniques to accurately interpret the information and eliminate misleading indicators. If, for example, a driver turns on the windshield wipers in clear weather simply to clean the windshield, the NCAR data system will identify that action as an outlier rather than issuing a false alert about precipitation.

“It’s not enough to process the information almost instantaneously,” says William Mahoney, who oversees the system’s development for NCAR. “It needs to be cleaned up, sent through a quality control process, blended with traditional weather data, and eventually delivered back to drivers who are counting on the system to accurately guide them through potentially dangerous conditions.”

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