The automotive blind spot is an age-old problem. For some reason, an object as big as a car disappears when pulling alongside another car.
Ford thinks it has a better idea when it comes to solving the automotive disappearing act: magneto-resistive sensors. They use metal detectors in your car to learn when a metal object, such as another car, enters the blind spot.
Ford is testing this metal-detection system on a concept Explorer sport-utility vehicle called the Smart Safe Research Vehicle, or S2RV.
The magneto-resistive sensors are mounted under each side of the rear bumper. When the driver's turn signal is on, the sensors in the bumper determine whether there's a vehicle in the right or left lane.
If a vehicle is there and in the blind spot, an indicator in the side-view mirror turns from orange to red as an initial warning. But because the driver might not be looking at that mirror, a buzzer sounds to keep the driver from entering an occupied lane.
Because the sensors detect metal from the engines and frames, they can warn when a plastic-body Saturn or fiberglass-body Corvette is in the blind spot.
Some automakers have been testing radar or cameras to detect vehicles in the blind spot. Volvo, which is owned by Ford, will offer such a system this fall in its XC90.
Ron Miller, project leader for Intelligent Vehicle Technologies at Ford, said Volvo uses cameras. But whether camera or radar, both are expensive.
"Our goal is to come up with a system that we can add to cars at Ford for less than $100," he said. The Volvo system has not been priced yet. "We're doing lots of testing now and think we could add this [metal detection] system to vehicles within three to four years."
A few bugs need to be worked out, such as distinguishing vehicles entering the blind spot one after the other. If the alarm sounds and one vehicle passes, there's no way of knowing a second vehicle is there.
Also, the Earth's magnetic field influences the sensors, and the magnetic field in Texas is different from the one in New England, Miller said.
The S2RV also has a rear-collision warning system in which sensors in the rear bumper detect and warn if a vehicle is about to be hit in back. Other systems being tested are similar to those on other cars: Night Vision (Cadillac), which uses infrared heat imaging to show objects ahead regardless of visibility, and adaptive headlights (Lexus) that change direction of the beams in and out of curves.
In further safety developments, Ford has begun a series of tests to determine the most effective way to alert drowsy drivers before they lose control of the car. Ford has been using a "simulator" and volunteers who stay up all night before a three-hour "drive" at 6 a.m. each day.
The simulator is testing what actions the car must take to wake up the driver after sensors detect that his or her eyes have closed for up to three seconds -- and the individual is in danger of crashing.
When a camera mounted in the cabin detects such a lapse, simulated vibration and the sound of driving over a rumble strip are used to keep the driver from dozing. The steering wheel also is moved as if given a yank or tug by an outside force.
"So far, there's only two things that have been proven to wake people up and make them alert -- a 30-minute nap or a caffeine stimulant," said Jeff Greenberg, staff technical specialist for vehicle design research at Ford. "And the car isn't capable of giving the driver either."