Auto market proves a boon to camera vendors

CCD or CMOS sensor vendors or camera manufacturers that are not involved with today's major automobile manufacturers might miss out on one of the largest markets for embedded machine-vision products.

Sep 1st, 2003

CCD or CMOS sensor vendors or camera manufacturers that are not involved with today's major automobile manufacturers might miss out on one of the largest markets for embedded machine-vision products. Already, a number of automobile manufacturers, such as Cadillac, have installed infrared (IR) night-vision systems in their automobiles.

Within a few years, however, cameras will measure a vehicle's environment and assist with parking, reversing, and warning drivers of critical situations. Major automobile vendors are now developing prototype systems that use forward-facing video cameras to provide information that will enable the driver to measure the distance to an object and to classify the detected object. For example, Bosch (Stuttgart, Germany; www.bosch.de), a car-equipment supplier, is implementing a lane-recognition feature with a warning to the driver should the car stray out of the lane or violate traffic signs.

One imaging-sensor manufacturer, SMaL Camera Technologies (Cambridge, MA, USA; www.smalcamera.com), has been awarded a $3.5 million order from a global automotive company. The company selected the SMaL IM102 CMOS imager to provide vision-based driver-assistance technologies, which will be released in production vehicles within a few years.

Iteris (Anaheim, CA, USA; www.iteris.com) and Valeo (Paris, France; www.valeo.com) are also developing a video-based automotive image-processing system. Dubbed AutoVue, the system tracks visible road lane markings and warns the driver in case of a lane departure. According to both companies, future vision technologies will detect changes in weather and road conditions and find obstacles and road signs. These functions also could ease driver tasks by automating and enhancing functions such as turning on lighting and starting windshield wipers.

In intelligent air-bag deployment systems, however, an ordinary video camera cannot exactly determine a person's position. Accordingly, engineers at Siemens VDO (Schwalbach, Germany; www.siemens.vdo.com) have developed a system that uses a 3-D camera installed in the roof lining of a car on the passenger side. This system also incorporates a seat-occupancy-detection system that basically consists of a mat located under the cushion of the passenger seat. This mat measures the passenger's weight distribution. All associated parameters are transmitted to the airbag controller where they are processed along with camera imaging data and the erratic car movements caused by an accident. Mutistage gas generators then vary the volume of the airbag deployment.

TRW Automotive (Livonia, MI, USA; www.trwauto.com) has developed a similar passenger-detection system slated for introduction in 2007. The vision system is designed to detect if there is a rear-facing infant child seat in a passenger seat and then to automatically prevent the deployment of the airbag. This system uses a stereo camera system mounted in the overhead console facing into the vehicle.

But driver safety is not just a matter of monitoring road conditions and controlling internal systems. Automotive companies are also concerned about the alertness of the driver. And, because inattention is the cause of between 25% and 56% of all traffic accidents, automotive companies are developing systems to keep operators awake.

For example, Volvo (Göteborg, Sweden; www.volvo.com) founded Seeing Machines (Canberra, Australia; www.seeingmachines.com) in partnership with the Australian National University (Canberra, Australia; www.anu.edu.au) to develop a system for tracking the eye movements of a driver. This system uses two cameras directed at the driver's eyes. The cameras detect when the driver's eye level of attention moves out of the camera's view and trigger a warning system of flashing LEDs. According to Volvo officials, two patent applications have been submitted on the basis of this work.

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