A driver who is barreling down the highway distracted by infotainment systems and a cellphone is a terrible driver and a danger to himself and others. Since that cell phone isn’t going away anytime soon, why not let the phone help you drive the car instead?
That’s the audacious idea behind Soterea, a company founded by two engineers who are experts in autonomous vehicles. Princeton professor Alain L. Kornhauser, director of the university’s autonomous vehicle engineering lab, and founder of the transportation technology company ALK Technologies, has teamed up with transportation policy consultant Eva Lerner-Lam, a member of the Institute of Traffic Engineers, in hopes of placing high-tech safety systems in every car — even old ones.
Soterea’s goal is to take anti-collision systems developed for luxury cars and put them into older vehicles as after-market devices, either by putting a cell-phone sized device on the dashboard or using an actual cell phone. Many high-end cars already have systems that automatically brake the car, steer around obstacles, or warn the driver if they are about to make an unsafe lane change.
It would be surprisingly easy to equip vehicles made in 2012 or later with the latest anti-collision technology. Lerner-Lam says most cars made after that date already have electronic controls for the brakes, steering, and accelerator. She says Soterea could be ready to launch its product in two or three years. “It could be an iPhone in a holster on your dashboard, with a camera facing forward, with bluetooth wireless communication to the electronic chips,” she says. “A smartphone sized device — possibly even your smartphone — will be your sensor.” The first versions would be warning systems, and later ones would actually take control of your car in an emergency, as the technology improved.
Lerner-Lam’s interest in safety systems is personal as well as professional. On February 26, a good friend of hers was driving on the New York Thruway in his Toyota Prius. Mark Becker, 53, was an environmental activist and college professor who was on his way to an adjunct teaching job at around 10:45 a.m. Several cars ahead of Becker, a snowplow began to belch smoke. The plow driver pulled over onto the left shoulder. The car following the snowplow swerved into the right lane to avoid the smoke, and hit another vehicle.
Seeing the accident ahead, Becker slowed down in the right lane. A tractor-trailer rear-ended Becker’s car, pushing the Prius into another tractor-trailer head of him. Becker died in the collision.
“One of the most meaningful ways I could see myself paying homage to Mark and his legacy is to push ahead with this,” she says. “If I had done this, and the technology was available two years ago, and I was able to provide that truck driver with a product, my friend might still be alive.”
Lerner-Lam says the impetus for anti-collision forward braking technology came from engineers who were building antilock braking systems for cars. ABS, which has become standard on many vehicles since it was introduced, automatically “pumps” brakes so a vehicle’s wheels don’t lock up during hard braking. This decreases stopping distance and lets drivers steer to avoid crashes while remaining in control.
However, despite this obvious safety advantage, cars with ABS systems didn’t perform as well as expected when they were sold to the public. A 2009 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that ABS did not seem to reduce the risk of fatal accidents, though it did prevent some minor crashes.
It turns out that drivers don’t step on the brakes hard enough. “People were too scared to use ABS braking properly, and they didn’t brake hard enough,” Lerner-Lam says. “Engineers were pulling their hair out. Why weren’t people pressing the brakes hard enough to fully utilize the advantage of ABS braking?”
The solution to this problem was the brake assist technology that is now finding its way onto vehicles. When the car’s on-board computer detects the driver is braking suddenly, it assumes that this is an emergency stop, and applies extra pressure to the brakes beyond what the driver is ordering — essentially, the car is making up for the driver’s hesitance to stomp on the brake pedal.
Some companies have taken the technology a step further. Volvo makes a system for use in tractor-trailers that uses cameras to see if the truck is headed for a collision. It warns a driver, with a siren and a flashing red light, if it’s about to hit something. And if the driver doesn’t stop, the truck will, all by itself.
Technology has reached the point where this kind of anti-collision gear is making its way onto high-end cars. The basic engineering problems of it have been solved, and it will only get better as sensors and computers improve.
Lerner-Lam is a bit mystified that all new cars don’t have this technology already. “When I’m invited to give talks, I always ask the question, who here has been in an auto collision? And I am astounded every time I ask that question, because more than 70 percent of the audience raises their hands. There just should not be that statistic. And then there are the people that couldn’t raise their hands, because they had died and were not able to be there. It’s got to stop.”
She believes part of the failure to integrate new safety technology belongs to auto dealers. “They’re not advertising safety features because they don’t think they sell,” she says. “They say people don’t ask for cars with safety devices on them.”
The development of automatic safety devices is linked to the development of self-driving cars, such as the one currently being tested by Google.
Lerner-Lam says there are two major components that any viable self-driving car would need. First, it would need to navigate. With advanced GPS and mapping technology on every smartphone, this problem has already been solved. Secondly, it needs to get where it is going without crashing.
Lerner-Lam says collision avoidance today is about where navigation was 10 to 15 years ago. “It was slow going, and it was really hard,” she says. “That took 10 to 15 years to stabilize. Now we are at the anti-collision phase, step 2. We really have to hunker down and do the hard work to get anti-collision done because we can’t get to self-driving without it.”
Meanwhile, another branch of automotive technology may be making cars more dangerous. Advanced “infotainment” systems area adding distractions to the driver’s seat. For example, Apple’s “CarPlay” system will come standard on all new Ford vehicles starting next year, and will make the car’s command console look like an iPhone home screen.
“You need real anti-collision as a failsafe for all the infotainment that’s going into cars,” she says. “If you go to the Consumer Electronics Show, as Alain and I did, it’s the place where electronics companies show their wares. Anti-collision is nonexistent. It’s like somehow, magically, people are supposed to figure out how to operate their infotainment systems and drive at the same time. These systems let people pick a movie they want to watch while they’re driving home.”
The makers of infotainment systems integrate voice controls, and say that they will make it easier for drivers to keep their eyes on the road. But Lerner-Lam isn’t buying it. She says 92 percent of all collisions are caused by human error, and she believes all the movie-picking, playlist editing, and other communications functions on new in-car devices will only drive that figure higher.
Soterea, which is named after Soteira, the Greek goddess of safety, has set up shop at the Lam Cloud building on Farr View Drive in Cranbury (which is owned by Eva’s brother Larry.) Right now, Soterea has six employees. Lerner-Lam has ambitions to expand the company to encompass five entire divisions, each with a different role in spreading safety technology.
First would be the R&D company that picks and chooses the latest safety technologies from around the world, and integrate them into kits. They would install the kits on certain cars and then test them to certify them to be reliable.
The second company would build a distribution network, where technicians could install the kits. This network would include dealers, auto service centers and insurance companies, which Lerner-Lam believes would be natural partners in spreading the anti-collision equipment.
A third company would be a data center to keep track of the safety records of cars equipped with any kind of anti-collision technology, by VIN number of the car, not by driver. “We don’t care how well people drive, we just want to know how the equipment performs,” she says. Soterea is already tracking data for about 100,000 cars. That company would create reports based on the data, and sell the reports to car manufacturers, safety device designers, insurance companies, and the general public.
Lerner-Lam says the main point of this division would be to objectively analyze accident rate data to ensure equipment made by soterea and other companies was performing well. “We would hate to sell a piece of equipment that wouldn’t end up performing well over time,” she says.
A fourth division would be a consulting company that would help car-makers design safer vehicles.
Lerner-Lam envisions a fifth division, which would be a testing service for manufacturers and equipment providers. It would have a test track, and would rate devices, not unlike how the Institute of Highway Safety performs crash tests.
It’s a vision for a huge company, but Lerner-Lam says the potential market is equally huge. She believes more people care about safety than car dealerships give them credit for. “The imperative is so important,” she says. “Saving lives is so important.”
Lerner-Lam grew up in New York City, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Her father was an importer/exporter who opened America’s first Honda dealership, in Paramus.
Kornhauser and Lerner-Lam have been working together since the 1970s, when Lerner-Lam graduated from Princeton with a degree in economics and transportation systems. Kornhauser was her adviser then. The two had always been interested in applying information technology to ground transportation. After graduation, Lerner-Lam ran a light rail system in San Diego before returning to Princeton’s transportation program. She soon left Princeton because her commute was too long, and started her own consulting company, and has spent her career in the field of transportation technology, working for many companies, governments, and transportation authorities.
Kornhauser has a background as a businessman as well as a professor. In 1979 he founded ALK Technologies, which created widely used software that manages freight systems. He sold the company to Trimble in 2012 in a deal for which financial terms were not disclosed. As a Princeton professor, he has researched information processing as it applies to rail and road transportation and has worked on autonomous vehicles.
Soterea Inc., 1 Farr View Drive, Cranbury. Eva Lerner-Lam, president and CEO, Alain L. Kornhauser, chairman and CTO. 201-984-5208. www.soterea.com.