Car device helps keep drivers in their lanes

The Baltimore Sun

Luxury cars are not my thing. For me, the practical outweighs aesthetics in matters automotive. Gizmos and gadgets strike me as distractions rather than marks of status. My 2002 Hyundai Elantra - with 85,000 miles and a collection of discarded coffee cups - suits me just fine.

That being said, could I please borrow that $71,370 BMW for just a few more days?

Here's the deal: A representative of a company called Mobileye calls with an offer that was hard to refuse. Please try out our new technology, she says. It warns drivers who are drifting out of their lanes - by reason of drowsiness, inattentiveness or whatever - before they leave the road or encroach on somebody else's right of way.

Oh, and we'll let you drive around in a 2008 BMW 535xi Sports Wagon for a few days to size it up. Golly, twist my arm.

Curiosity aside, the issue of lane departures is a serious one. Federal statistics show more than half of fatal crashes involve somebody crossing a lane marker and making unforeseen contact with a tree, sign, embankment, vehicle or whatever.

If someone could come up with an effective and consumer-friendly way to deliver such a warning, it would be a revolutionary advance in auto safety. But if it were done in a way that was annoying or intrusive, most motorists would not consider using it.

So it was decided that I should make the supreme sacrifice and check out this technology.

Well, it turns out that this BMW comes with a lot more than a new safety system. It has the latest generation GPS ($1,900), what's called a head-up display ($1,200), parking distance control ($700), night vision ($2,200), active cruise control ($2,400) and so many other bells and whistles there wasn't time to ring or tweet them all.

The lane departure warning amounted to chump change as a $500 option.

One caveat: This is not an automotive column, and I'm not a car reviewer. My credentials consist of holding a driver's license far too long and occasionally listening to National Public Radio's Car Talk.

But for what it's worth, here's my verdict: It's worth the money. It could save your life.

BMW and Mobileye have come up with a system that is finely calibrated, intuitive, driver-friendly and immensely useful. Best of all, nothing beeps, pings, chimes or otherwise makes annoying noises.

The auto manufacturer has set up the system to deliver a tactile warning - a vibrating steering wheel, similar to the feel of straying into the rumble strip on the shoulder of a highway - when a driver is about to stray from his or her lane without signaling.

For me, the warning is just right. Enough to alert but not to startle. Perceptible enough to rouse the drowsy but not an electric shock. Not a public rebuke in front of your passengers (though a sensitive spouse in the passenger seat could detect vibration).

The alert is also calibrated to kick in at just the right time - as the motorist is just approaching the lane line. It kicks in at about 40 mph - a sensible choice on the part of BMW.

It's even remotely possible that the system could also make its users better drivers. That's because all you need to do to override it is to use your turn signals before changing lanes. Conversely, when you fail to signal, you get a little reminder. Could technology revive this lost art?

Itay Gat, vice president of production programs at Israel-based Mobileye Vision Technologies, said his company provides the software that guides the system.

He said the system employs a camera mounted on the back of the rear-view mirror. The software analyzes the images transmitted by that camera and discerns when the driver is on course to drift across lanes.

"You want to be able to alert the driver before he crosses the lane mark," Gat said. "The idea is you still have time after you got the warning to get back to your own lane without anyone getting hurt."

Gat said the system should eventually sell for a price that would allow it to be installed in all vehicles rather than just luxury models. He said he hopes to see it someday become a standard feature.

The key to affordability might be the posture taken by the U.S. auto insurance industry. If American companies give motorists enough of a rate break to offset the additional cost, as Gat said Israeli insurers do, lane departure warnings could find a ready market.

According to Gat, the same computer chip that runs the lane warning system could eventually support systems that would detect other vehicles and pedestrians, as well as other applications. If they could only devise a system to detect driver stupidity, 21st-century passenger vehicles could be significantly safer than their predecessors.

After a couple of days of letting me try the system, the nice folks who brought the BMW from New Jersey came to collect it. Just in time. It's easy to get spoiled.

The Beamer was a treat - with its superb handling and acceleration. That system that projects your speed and GPS information so it appears to hover over the hood was cool, too.

But the BMW wasn't perfect. The nice female voice that gave GPS directions sometimes issued confusing or unnecessary advice. And the parking control system was panicky, sounding alarms when you got a comfortable 18 to 24 inches from another object. It gave the impression the car would have a nervous breakdown if asked to parallel park on a city street.

When you folks at BMW get the bugs worked out, give me a call. I'll test your car again. Strictly in the interest of research, of course.

gettingthere@baltsun.com

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