Time We All Drove a Knight Rider

In 2004, 23 young people died on their way to the Ruka ski resort - the worst traffic accident in Finland’s history. On an icy road, their bus crashed with the trailer of a truck carrying heavy paper rolls.

“Tragedies like the Konginkangas crash could be avoided if drivers received warnings about rapidly changing road and weather conditions that cause hazardous situations,” says Pekka Eloranta. “Many of the technologies are out there but need to be made available in affordable applications for more vehicles.” As head of research and development for Mobisoft Oy, Eloranta coordinated the Celtic-Plus project CoMoSeF, which set out to test solutions to make driving safer.

Finland’s Meteorological Institute (FMI) also got on board together with research institutes and companies from four other EU countries, Turkey and Korea. “At the Institute we issue a lot of meteorological data but we wanted to test two-way information exchange,” said Timo Sukuvaara, senior research scientist. “We proved that vehicles on the road could exchange data between other vehicles, give data to us and receive better data from us as a result.”

The partners pooled their expertise to run pilot tests focused on cars, buses and lorries collecting and exchanging data through their sensors. Countries where snow and ice on roads happen less often benefitted particularly from testing by the partners in Finland where temperatures routinely plummet to minus 30 or even minus 50 degrees in the winter.

Smarter cars

In Sodankylä in Lapland, the FMI put friction sensors on cars that could take readings about how slippery the roads were. Researchers drove the cars past roadside weather stations they had set up, which contained sensors measuring variables like frost (using underground sensors), general temperature and wind speed. The cars transferred data wirelessly to the weather station and received warnings based on the weather stations and data held by the FMI.

The researchers also tested systems which would automatically send an alert to other cars in an area in the event of an airbag bursting – a quick way to avoid one road accident causing another. “Drivers can access a lot of information on weather and roads but what they want and need are detailed updates on the state of a road just a few kilometres ahead,” explains Sukuvaara.

The pilot tests were conducted in eight countries and 11 different environments, including one with taxi drivers in Tampere, southern Finland, and bus drivers in Romania. As well as benefitting safety, they found their technical solutions also helped to cut down congestion in busy cities by gathering data from buses and taxis about traffic jams, accidents and roadworks.

They showcased some of their pilots in Russia at the Sochi Winter Oympics in February 2014 and set up weather stations on the main road used to reach the Olympics area, which ran from the mountains down to the beach at the Black Sea. These sent updates to the Finnish ski team on conditions including expected snowfall. “We wanted to show the systems don’t just work in our backyard, they can be taken any place,” says Sukuvaara.

CoMoSeF’s work wasn’t without setbacks, however. Russian security restrictions hindered some of its data transmissions at the Olympics, for instance. Another challenge to commercialisation is for vehicle manufacturers to agree to share data between the cars of their competitors. Many car models already collect data such as tyre rotation speed (a good indicator of slippery roads to meteorologists) and outside temperatures. Many public institutions like the FMI would like monitors for data exchange and alerts to be fitted to car dashboards in order to avoid distracting drivers, but until that can happen, CoMoSeF decided to test smartphone and table applications using colour coding on routes, with colours indicating ice or frost ahead.

By building on the developments made in previous Celtic-Plus projects in the same domain (WiSafeCar and CarLink), CoMoSeF managed to develop 23 new products. If it is left up to these developers, a car as clever as talking Kit in the 1980s U.S. TV series Knight Rider might not be too far off.

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