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Driving Assistance Tech No Longer Just for Luxury Vehicles

Devices to retrofit cars with new safety features could help fleet managers better track their vehicles.

(TNS) — Like an obedient grade-schooler, the smartphone-sized device hanging from the car’s rear view mirror looks two ways when entering a road.

A wide-angle camera pans the road ahead. A second camera stares back at the driver, checking to see if he is distracted. The networked gadget captures other important data, such as location and speed, and feeds it into a cloud network. Safety and traffic warnings appear or chirp from a small screen set on the dashboard.

Is this prototype the future of auto safety for older cars? CEO Stefan Heck and his team at the Palo Alto startup Nauto think so.

“We’re not going to turn your Honda Civic into a Tesla,” said Heck. But, he said, in some instances, “this is going to save your life.”

The safety and road awareness of the luxury electric vehicle is at the leading edge of auto technology. Now several companies — from startups such as Nauto to major auto suppliers — are working on similar safety features that could reach the broader car market in just a few years. Nauto’s beta device is already in use some fleet operations.

The potential market for technology like Nauto’s is huge — the average vehicle on U.S. roads is 11 years old. Devices to retrofit cars with new safety features could help insurance companies looking to reduce risk, fleet managers trying to better track their vehicles and parents of teenage drivers.

The goals for the safety features are clear: reduce the number of crashes and fatalities from the estimated 33,000 victims who died in vehicle accidents in 2014 in the United States. The World Health Organization estimates 1.3 million people die every year in vehicle crashes worldwide.

Leading auto technology supplier Delphi has seen its safety business grow 50 percent in the last year, said Glen DeVos, vice president of engineering for electronics and safety. Safety features are migrating from luxury lines to lower-cost vehicles at a faster pace than other features, he said.

Delphi is getting requests from manufacturers to integrate advanced driver assistance systems, or ADAS, across all company models, he said. The features include audio and visual driver warnings and adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist and emergency breaking.

The trend is driven by consumer demand and automakers’ desire to earn high ratings on government safety tests.

“People are becoming more aware of these systems and their benefits,” DeVos said. He believes the features could be found in lower-priced new vehicles in as little as three years.

DeVos said the market for retrofit systems for used cars is less robust, but still important to creating safer roads. Devices or smartphone applications that connect the vehicle to Wi-Fi enabled infrastructure, such as traffic lights, can provide valuable warnings to drivers. Delphi engineers estimate a half-second increase in reaction time before a potential accident decreases the likelihood of a crash by 90 percent.

DeVos said the direction in automotive safety engineering is clear: “Ultimately where this leads to is fully autonomous vehicles.”

Karl Iagnemma, an MIT robotics researcher and CEO of nuTonomy, said the market is filled with innovators. His Boston-based startup received $3.6 million in seed funding in January to develop software that navigates cars through urban environments. The company is testing a combination of camera, radar and light detecting and ranging sensors to bring improved results to the road.

“It’s challenging to drive in a way that’s human-like,” Iagnemma said. His company is working on the software to automate taxis in Singapore, and expects to run a test of a complex autonomous trip through the city this year.

He expects Tesla-like safety and semi-autonomous driving settings “to take longer to trickle down” to a broader market.

Nauto started last year out of Heck’s garage, and has moved into a storefront in downtown Palo Alto. Heck, who has a doctorate in cognitive science from the University of California at San Diego, was a former senior partner at McKinsey & Company before starting the company. It raised $2.9 million in seed funding in September.

The Nauto technology is based on enhanced visual sensors, proprietary software and a crowdsourcing network. The system helps drivers avoid congestion, find parking and sends alerts for potential rear-end collisions. It keeps data for 72 hours and has privacy controls to limit identifying personal features and specific travel routes.

An early version of the technology, used by fleets in San Francisco and New York City, captures video images from a wide-angle, forward-looking camera. The second camera points at the driver, allowing the system to give an audio or visual warning when the driver has become distracted, such as by looking at a phone, tipping a cup of coffee or glancing away from the road. The data is uploaded and combined with information from other equipped vehicles to give real-time traffic alerts and assistance to navigate other hazards.

Alvaro Glenard, owner of Alta Limousine in Palo Alto, has been testing the Nauto device on his four-vehicle fleet. Glenard is happy with the system and believes it could help lower his insurance costs.

Some drivers and customers have been concerned about the inward-facing camera, and Nauto has told Glenard that passenger faces will be blurred. Glenard thinks future versions of the device will provide timely safety and traffic alerts for his drivers, at a reasonable cost. “It’ll be a little smarter than a regular dash cam,” he said. “It’s valuable if something happens.”

Heck said the device has been tested in about 25 cities around the world. The cost is $399 for the device and network. He anticipates a less-expensive retail version out next year.

“It’s a fascinating time,” Heck said. “There hasn’t been this big a disruption since Henry Ford.”

©2016 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.