A Columbia engineering company has designed a "Mayday" system that allows motorists to summon help directly from inside or outside their cars at the push of a button.
The system combines a cellular phone, computer data programs, surveillance services and navigation technology to protect a motorist in trouble and pinpoint the car's location, even as a car thief or carjacker speeds away.
Its creator -- Simms Industries Inc., which specializes in defense system engineering -- plans to be selling the security system, called the Protector, by July, after five years of development.
A variety of vehicle tracking systems are on the market or are being developed that use some combination of satellites, signal transmission towers, transceivers, computer data programs and
other technology. Businesses use such systems to track their vehicle fleet.
But James Simms, president of Simms Industries, plans tomarket the Protector as the most comprehensive system emphasizing protection of the driver over and above protection of the vehicle.
"We predicted society was going to get more violent," Mr. Simms said. "That's happening. Carjacking is one indicator. The psychology has changed. You used to feel safe in your car; now you have fear."
The system is designed so that a person under stress with little technical knowledge will be able to activate it, Mr. Simms said. "The only thing a person has to know is to push a button and they'll get help."
The Protector initially will cost between $2,500 and $3,000 and will be targeted to owners of cars in the $40,000 to $60,000 price range, said Mr. Simms. He said he hopes to decrease production costs and lower the price over several years to the level of car stereos. There also will be a $30 monthly subscription fee.
Simms Industries has applied for patents, seeking protection for the system in its entirety as well as individual features, said Royal Craig, the attorney for Simms.
The system includes a mobile unit with a receiver, a cellular telephone, antennas, a remote control and a central office that is staffed with operators and equipped with computer and communications equipment.
Here's how it works:
* The mobile unit is activated by an electronic key coded to let the central office know the identity of the vehicle operator and other personal data, such as height, weight and medical conditions.
* The box has four buttons that can signal an operator to call police, fire, medical or emergency road services for help. When a button is pushed, the cellular phone automatically dials a central office, identifying the car and its driver.
* A long-range navigation system (LORAN) that was originally developed for ships and aircraft is triggered, allowing the vehicle to be tracked through computer-generated maps of streets nationwide.
* The central office can listen to conversations in the vehicle and can communicate with the driver through a speaker phone.
* A remote control can activate the system from up to 500 feet to help a motorist who feels threatened. A motorist who allows a thief to steal his car can activate the system by remote control so that the vehicle can be tracked, say Simms engineers. The communications center can then turn on a flashing light or alarm in the car or shut off the ignition.
* The mobile unit can be connected to alarm systems, air bags or heart monitors. An accident or disruption to those systems would trigger communications.
The product seems unique, several experts in the auto accessories industry say, primarily for its focus on protecting drivers.
"I'd say they've got an original idea," said Lea Gilpin, manager of automotive technical services for AAA-Mid Atlantic's Maryland division. "The need for it is just developing. Unfortunately, current lawlessness has opened the way for new ideas."
Larry Hecker, president of Bethesda-based Automotive Parts and Accessories Association, said most vehicle protection systems are designed primarily to trace stolen cars or to choke off an engine.
Simms' concept "makes a lot of sense, especially in areas where carjacking has been a problem," he said.
The system has "potential," said Howard County Police Chief James N. Robey, who has seen a demonstration. But he said he wasn't sure the Protector would help protect potential crime victims.
"In theory, in a sterile setting, it worked well," he said. "The proof's in the pudding whether it would work on the street in a real-life situation."
The system could be a "tremendous aid" to police in recovering stolen cars and bailing out motorists whose cars break down, he said.
A manager at a leading developer of automatic vehicle location technology is skeptical of Simms' concept.
Barnet Fagel, a national Mobile Electronics Association board member, warned that interference could hinder LORAN's accuracy. LORAN transmitters are scattered through out the country.
"You may have great location in some parts of a city and not in others," said Mr. Fagel, a sales manager at PacTel Teletrac in Los Angeles and a columnist on car security for Car Audio and Electronics magazine. "If you call the police for an emergency, you better be right on the money where it is," he said.
Simms Industries is headquartered in Columbia and has branches in Crystal City and Dahlgren, Va., and Orlando, Fla., concentrating in weapons systems and computer training. The 10-year-old engineering company, which employs about 60 and had about $6.5 million in gross revenue last year, is increasing efforts to develop commercial products, said a Simms spokesman.
One car dealer questions whether consumers would be willing to pay thousands for a security system.
Most customers aren't inquiring about sophisticated car security systems when they look at alarm-equipped Mercedes Benzes, said Rod Irving, general sales manager at R&H; Motors in Owings Mills.
"Like anything else, it depends on the cost. If it's 100 bucks, they'll take one. If it's 1,000 bucks, forget it," he said.
Simms plans to buy custom-made components of the system, including the LORAN circuit board, from other Maryland businesses. The company plans to lease space to assemble the mobile unit.
Mr. Simms said the company plans to market the system through cellular phone companies, electronics distributors and automotive service companies.