July 18, 2008

New Windshield Guides Older Drivers

Aging drivers may soon get an improved view of the road, thanks to innovative research underway at General Motors.

The technology combines lasers, infrared sensors and a camera to take what's happening on the road and enhance it, so drivers with vision problems are able to see a little more clearly.

The high-tech windshield is only in the research stage, but it could prove extremely useful as the 65 and older population in the U.S. will nearly double in about 20 years.

GM's new windshield won't improve individual eyesight, however it will make objects stand out that could otherwise go unnoticed by an aged eye.

Developers say the windshield improvements won't cause drivers to plow into trees, instead it will enhance just a few objects that are already in a driver's view.

During a foggy drive, a laser could project a blue line onto the windshield that follows the edge of the road. Or if infrared sensors detect a person or animal in the driver's path at night, its outline is projected on the windshield to highlight its location.

Transparent coating on the windshield, allows the product to work by lighting up when struck by ultraviolet light.

Sensors will determine the position of the car in relation to the road; while other devices track the driver's head and eye movement to make sure the image on the windshield isn't skewed.

The technological issues mean it could take years before the windshield of a Buick looks anything like a pilot's head-up display in an F-16.

GM researcher Thomas Seder said, "You can see the difficulty of implementing technology like this." 

He said another struggle, is persuading skeptics to understand how helpful the windshield could be.

"They say, 'that would be very frustrating or confusing, to have things on my windshield. I need to see the world,'" Seder said. "I'm enhancing the world. I'll take a feature that should be important to you, like the edge of the road, and paint a line over the real edge."

GM designed the windshield specifically for older drivers, who have vision problems at a much higher rate than other age groups.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 12.4 percent of the population is 65 or older, but by 2030, that percentage is projected to climb to 20 percent, or 71.5 million people.

"They're not only the fastest growing group of drivers on the road in the U.S., but they are driving more miles per year than previous generations," said Cynthia Owsley, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. "This has enormous implications for road safety in our country," said Owsley, who has worked with Seder on the high-tech windshield's design.

Chrysler LLC spokesman Nick Cappa said his company is also working on windshield technologies, but he did not provide details.

Ford Motor Co. spokesman Alan Hall said that automaker didn't have any similar plans.

Head-up displays include limited technology, but the advantage is drivers don't have to look down to see the information. Head-up displays in a Cadillac STS feature information such as the speed or radio station projected onto a small area of the windshield.

The GM system seeks will solve at least one problem with a head-up display - it can only be seen if the driver's head is at a certain angle.

"What's novel here is it's the entire windshield - no little headbox I have to have my head in. Here, you can see the image from any position," he said.

Head-down displays can be helpful, but do not work as well with older drivers who have problems adjusting to different visual planes.

"If I can keep their eyes out of the vehicle, so they're not looking down as much, that's a really good assistive technology," Seder said.

Some windshield features would assist drivers of all ages. If a driver is speeding, a pink box frames an approaching speed limit sign to draw the driver's attention.

Another feature solves the problem of the last 50 yards in Global Positioning System navigation.

"The GPS got me on some road. What building is it? Point, there it is," Seder said.

Seder said he wants to provide technology that helps older drivers, but at the same time isn't scary or overwhelming.

AARP spokeswoman Nancy Thompson said she believes older drivers will embrace the technology.

"The boomer population has grown up with technology and is comfortable with technology," Thompson said. "Our research shows a willingness to adopt technology to make life easier. It seems like a logical extension of the boomer lifestyle to include technology that makes them safer on the road."

Owsley, who has researched drivers' vision for 15 years, is conducting focus groups to ask aging drivers about the issues they face. She said her research has led her to a commonly heard goal.

"Older adults are like adults of all ages," she said. "They want to drive."


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