Cars Will Enlist Thermal Infrared and AI to Shield Pedestrians

What is the NHTSA’s PAEB Mandate?

After examining the latest crash and test data, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) proposed a mandate, expected to be finalized shortly, to require ALL new cars to include pedestrian automatic emergency braking (PAEB) systems that see and classify pedestrians in the roadway day or night, then safely stop. This new requirement to protect pedestrians will likely be mandatory for vehicle speeds up to 37 mph in the daytime, in total darkness, and in challenging visual environments, day or night.

Even since the introduction of the automobile, various mandates have been established and implemented to improve safety. Over the years, these have increasingly involved both manual and automatic features. For example, seat belts are manual while airbags are automatic. Collision warnings advise the driver, while anti-collision braking, lane-keeping technology, and backup protection automatically engage.

This new requirement for PAEB systems that operate day and night differs from earlier mandates because it’s intended to protect those around the cars rather than those inside. Many existing auto safety features help pedestrians by improving control of the vehicles, and some, like prohibiting impaling hood ornaments, reduce pedestrian risk. The new mandate, though, is the first major requirement to add equipment to cars solely to reduce pedestrian injury and death.

For several years, automatic emergency braking systems have been available on some models because the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) program, which tests and rates cars for safety, has included automatic braking in its scoring system. However, until now, this function has been optional, meaning that the equipment needed to detect potential collisions and determine appropriate action was also optional. With the new mandate, this function—and its associated equipment—will no longer be optional.

Sensors and Software Behind PAEB Tech  

This mandate is precisely what’s needed to jumpstart implementation of effective PAEB systems. To begin, PAEB systems must accept images from sensors (currently radar and cameras), align their data in time and space, then classify significant objects and determine their positions relative to the vehicle.

The information derived from this analysis can be displayed as perceived hazard alert for the driver and sent to another program that figures out what the car should do to avoid a collision. The result is a series of commands applied to the brake actuators to stop, or steering controls to avoid the hazard.

There are some software subtleties in this process, such as figuring out whether to brake for a pedestrian who is only walking in the direction of the road, or whether the system should respond like a Grand Prix driver or a grandparent. But at least the image-acquisition hardware seems to have been figured out—well, not quite. 

Crash tests performed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) last year clearly demonstrated that cameras and radar perform admirably in PAEB systems when the sun is up, but miserably when it’s not. Even in daytime, though, some weather conditions like fog or rain or snow or the presence of dust or smoke, or even the setting sun in the background, can hide pedestrians enough to render cameras useless (Fig. 2).

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