Emerson’s Anand Iyer applies process safety thinking to automobiles.
Statistics put highway accidents as the largest human killer. More people die in automobile accidents than in the wars of the modern world, nuclear power plants or process plants. We have put in a lot of knowledge and processes into process plant technologies to make them safer to operate.
Our process industry is very fortunate to have a process/tool like “layer of protection” to make process plant operations very safe. A generic Layer of protection drawing used is shown below:
If we see the Layers of protection available in cars today, we could see something like the one below.
At the center, we have the basic car, its crumple zones, steering wheel, accelerator, brakes, gear or auto transmission and so on.
Alarm Layer. What we find immediately is that there are practically limited alarms present around this layer. The driver could depend on some road signs and maybe some display boards alerting him of dangers ahead. Cars are not assessing the conditions of the road—they drive on and neither is information available like GPS, radio systems or other means integrated into the cars. Some cars do have technologies like lane detect or brake assist and a few have radars and so on.
But a cursory look reveals that neither does the department of motor vehicles (DMV) mandate cars to have more instrumentation and protection around the driver and neither are car companies incorporating them as standard features. A lot of sensor and instrument technology available to detect threats like radars, proximitors and others need to be installed reporting to the GPS console (which needs to go mandatory too). Road conditions like ice formation (some kind of reflective devices, vibration devices, surface roughness measurement and so on) would add to the assessment of the surface being driven on. We could also use tools available today like radio news, or some electronic board at certain locations and have a means of incorporating these into the car’s central control systems.
A massive overhaul is required to make this layer of protection available.
DMV’s nationwide need to make radars, lane-detect technology, road surface detection, side rumbler detection mandatory standard equipment. The driver should be alerted by GPS and other means of all impending road condition and threats. Cars should themselves be able to report potholes, ice, water and water height through their GPSs. This will alert other drivers of the same. A massive overhaul of the alarm systems in cars is required. Motor departments nationwide and worldwide should ask for stringent alarm standards in cars.
Later on DMVs’ could ask for specific protection control mechanisms because of these alarms. Like lowering speed limits automatically in rain or sleet conditions or tying up engine RPM, tire RPM and vehicle speed to detect skidding and other accident events and so on…
Automatic Stops (similar to automatic shutdowns layer). What saves the day for most processes when ordinary controls fail are safety shutdown systems or trips. We have trips on overspeed in turbomachinery and so on but none in cars. I have seen accidents in roads where the entire car has broken down into pieces but the engine is still running, sometimes catching fire and adding to the hazard.
Three distance sensors on the front side of the car should do a 2oo3 logic and stop the car on imminent danger of a collision. Again, here motor departments nationwide should define the distance and logic at which the car engine should shutdown, gears neutral, fuel cut off, brakes fully applied. Further when approaching walls and stationary roadsides, these devices would act on logic different from when the object in front is a car.
As a note, prior to this shutdown, as the distance reaches a pretrip limit, engine would be slowed down, gears lowered and brakes applied to slow down and further when the distance is within the safe limit, control handed over to driver.
Similar to front impact, side impact detectors would probably alert any imminent danger from the sides. Automated devices in the future, along with motor department approved logic, would move the cars either to safer lanes or increase-decrease speeds to avert the threat. Lane changing itself could go through an overhaul and have some alarming (instead of the look over your shoulder as only means, sensors at side could inform when lane changing is safer). The GPS device could inform the driver that lane changing is not possible now…
At crossroads, drivers could be alerted when the light turns yellow and they could make it across safely but when the signal is at a state that the car cannot pass the red light, the car should also stop automatically, irrespective of drivers desire to do otherwise.
Pretrip devices in both the automobiles involved alert the driver of the side impact threat. Automated steering controls could come in for a brief duration correcting the course of the automobiles.
DMVs nationwide and worldwide have to think of more situations wherein an automated shutdown (or automated stop) is required.
Adding the alarms and DMV mandatory vehicle stops in automobiles would prevent or limit the damage from many accidents.
Some cars today do provide brake assistance and collision prevention, but this is not DMV mandated. Further, this stopping should happen from approved devices only and stringent standards like those on SIS systems should apply.
Protection through devices. As we move to upper layers of process plants, we find a device like a relief valve and other such items available that are missing in automobiles.
We need new technology here. What are required could be electromagnets that would activate and the other car or the highway wall would also activate the electromagnets such that they repel each other. Due to the availability of the other two layers, the car would already be at a lower speed / momentum and electromagnets would cushion out some of the impact. Another concept could be like the shock absorbers between rail cars that push each other away from each other. Front and rear bumpers could have hydraulic shock absorbers, reducing the shock of impacts. Some R&D effort needs to happen on this front to find mechanical devices that can help when all else fails to prevent the impact.
Further, I do not know why we as human beings have scrap yards filled with dumped old car tires. Old car tires are available as side impact cushions in dune buggy tracks or other pleasure automobile rides, but none on the sides of the concrete walls of the highways… Point to ponder…
Other layers. Anyways, a lot of DMV standards, devices and automation (especially mandatory automatic stops) is possible (technology easily available) today that could increase driver safety to a large extent.
And car manufacturers probably have to do more R&D on the protection layer (protection via devices). Some more thought has to go to protecting the car and occupants at this layer. Damage to the car should happen only beyond the limits of this layer.
Beyond this the same like airbags, rubber tires at the sides of the roads could save the cars.
Emergency response could increase further if the GPS of individual cars could communicate and send automatic distress signals when the airbags are deployed directly to the emergency centers. Cameras could zoom into the highway area concerned and emergency vehicles deployed immediately to the scene…
DMVs should probably try the layer or protection tool to see what they could do to improve the safety of drivers.