TORONTO - If a car plunges off the road into a ditch during a cross-country trip, chances are good the driver is in serious trouble.
Even if the occupant is conscious and has a cell phone, he may not know exactly where he is. Injured, trapped or disabled in the wreckage, he could face a long wait until somebody spots him.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration officials have said that one out of three traffic deaths are single-vehicle accidents on rural roads. Even in well-traveled areas, accidents can go unnoticed. In one fatal accident, a Leesburg, Va., woman's car wasn't found for days, even though it was less than 50 yards from the road.
Now intelligent transportation systems are increasingly seen as a way to beam emergency information from wrecked vehicles to rescue centers. Experts at last month's World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems here said standard equipment for cars of the future may well include emergency locator systems, or 'mayday' systems.
ONSTAR HAS CHANGED
Some systems already offer parts of the technology. OnStar, GM's recently repositioned driver assistance technology, activates emergency communications when a crash occurs. Originally sold as a cell phone account with a piggyback GM driver-assistance service, OnStar has now changed its offering to a three-button built-in system focusing on driver needs and safety.
But advanced automated collision notification systems being tested will do much more, said Joseph Elias, ITS program manager for Veridian Engineering Inc.'s Calspan Operations.
Elias said a test in the Buffalo, N.Y., area has coupled accident detectors in more than 800 private cars with automatic links to the county sheriff's department and to county emergency medical services.
LINKUP WITH DISPATCHERS
If an accident occurs, an automatic wireless phone link is made with emergency dispatchers, and the transmission displays a map showing the vehicle's location. A hands-free voice channel is opened to the car so occupants and 911 dispatchers can talk to one another.
The vehicle also sends data indicating whether it was a frontal collision, side-impact accident or a rollover.
'Our processor keeps a 10-second history,' Elias explained, 'and tells where the primary direction of force was. The accelerometer can tell you whether it was severe.'
The equipment in the car uses global positioning satellite navigation systems to chart latitude and longitude. Using the global positioning satellite and the time history can actually lay out a dead-reckoning course to show the most likely path a car followed to guide rescue workers if they can't immediately spot the vehicle.
NHTSA is still gathering data on mayday systems. So far, the New York study group has experienced about 25 accidents that activated the systems.
Elias said the system shouldn't raise privacy concerns for drivers, because it is only activated if a crash happens.
'It's only on when they're in an accident,' he said. 'And when you are in an accident, you want people to know where you are.'