as seen on EETimes
May 25, 2023
The road is dark, the rain coming down in sheets. Suddenly, two people run onto the pavement, directly in your path. Before you can react, your car automatically slows to a safe stop without a collision. The runners press on, unaware of the danger just passed. To make this safety improvement real, we need cars that can see at night—a rare capability today that is poised, through actions now planned, to become widespread in the next few years.
Since the turn of the millennium, pedestrian injuries and fatalities have been steadily rising around the world, most rapidly at night—a scenario that now accounts for three-quarters of incidents. The rise is generally attributable to a combination of heavier and faster cars, increasing driver distraction and riskier pedestrian behavior.
Highway regulators and insurers have noticed these rising rates, leading to calls for new safety regulations that include equipment that stops cars when pedestrians inject themselves into roadways too closely ahead. Projects to develop cars that drive themselves have produced such equipment, which, when adapted to assist drivers in collision avoidance, promises to reduce pedestrian strikes.
Testing has confirmed these improvements under favorable conditions, but a problem remains: In the dark, in the presence of bright oncoming light or in unfavorable weather, the current systems fail.
Fundamentally, this failure is due to the dependence of the current automobile safety equipment—cameras, radar and LiDAR—on the use of active illumination. These devices all require that the pedestrian be illuminated to be seen.
Recognizing this limitation, regulators around the world have issued mandates that require deployment of pedestrian anti-collision systems capable of operation at night.
Fortunately, there is an alternative to active illumination. For the last 100 years, we have been able to take pictures of differences in radiated heat using cameras initially developed for the military. In these images, anything having even a minuscule temperature difference from the background clearly stands out—heated buildings, operating vehicles and, most significantly, warm bodies.
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