Auto safety mandate could boost local jobs

Recommendations by a federal board that motor vehicles be built with advanced sensor technology to reduce accidents could have strong economic consequences for the Dayton region, which specializes in the emerging industry, experts said.

The National Transportation Safety Board made the recommendation in response to its analysis of fatal school bus accidents in 2012 at intersections in New Jersey and Florida. Vehicles equipped with the technology can continuously communicate over wireless networks, exchanging information on location, direction and speed 10 times a second.

The vehicle’s computer issues danger warnings to drivers, often before they can see the other vehicle. The technology, which is being road-tested in Ann Arbor, Mich., is effective up to a range of about 1,000 feet, according to the Associated Press.

“This technology more than anything else holds great promise to protect lives and prevent injuries,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said. She added that was particularly true of crashes at intersections like the two school bus accidents.

Joe Sciabica, then executive director of the Air Force Research Laboratory, in 2012 predicted that Dayton will be the international center of sensors technology development.

Estimates are that at least 2,000 people work in sensors development across southwestern Ohio, not counting employees on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where AFRL is headquartered.

In June, a three-day Sensor Summit was held in Dayton, sponsored by the University of Dayton Research Institute and its Institute for Development and Commercialization of Advanced Sensor Technology, or IDCAST.

Larrell Walters of UDRI said questions remain to be answered on the reliability of an automobile system as well as how to engineer a sensor-based warning system.

“Should they just alert the driver, or should they apply brakes at a determined level, guide the vehicle onto a safe path, or take other actions as determined necessary to ensure the safety of those involved?” he asked. “Here too, there is an issue of what the public will accept.”

Another consideration is that traffic is a mixed environment, with people walking, on bicycles, on skate boards and other modes of transportation that are not equipped with interactive sensors. “This could lead to a scenario where a system designed to mitigate damage actually causes more. These are tough questions,” he said.

Wright State University’s Center for Sensor Exploitation is collaborating with defense and industrial partners and has grown to include more than 100 workers with revenue topping $1 million in 2013, the university said.

University spokesman Jim Hannah said the center’s mission is to mine information from video, radar, infrared or acoustic sensors that are deployed on drones, or unmaned aerial vehicles, as well as in detection devices that sniff chemical scents or check water levels on the Great Lakes.

An auto industry official said the board was acting precipitously.

“The technology is still being assessed,” said Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. “It’s too early to call for a mandate.”

In the New Jersey accident in February 2012, a dump truck slammed into the rear left side of a school bus at an intersection near Chesterfield, spinning the bus around until it collided with a pole. An 11-year-old girl was killed and five other students were seriously injured.

The next month in Port St. Lucie, Fla., a semi tractor-trailer truck hit a school bus on a rear side, killing one student and seriously injuring four others.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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