Seeing the light

| July 21, 2012 - 21.16UTC
See the light

Motoring journalist Michael Mwai sees a bright future ahead for Kenyan drivers

We Kenyans have peculiar driving habits. We love our new superhighways and will test them to the limit in total disregard for our barely sufficient vehicle handling skills. More peculiar is our ability (read inability) to keep time. It therefore goes without saying that we do not plan our road trips too well. With tunnel vision, we leave things a little too late and assume our vehicles know the way to the destination and will arrive like guided missiles. I learned firsthand on a recent trip out of town that driving at night can be very risky.

Leaving Nairobi at 4.30pm, I had to drive on a dark, unfamiliar road for over 350km. It was as nerve-racking as it was uncomfortable and exhausting. When I finally arrived, four hours later, I was too tired to enjoy my nightcap of Southern Comfort on the rocks. On such long journeys, fatigue inevitably sets in and you are prone to loss of concentration, exposing you to grave danger.

Driving at dusk or dawn can be equally daunting, even if you are as sober as a priest. On the other hand if you have imbibed liberally on your favourite tipple you just might end up in the drink. (Pun intended). Many road accidents are caused by driver error and to some extent, inadequate infrastructural design. In Kenya we have an equal share of both. Once you leave the confines of a well-lit metropolis, you are in the dark, literally.

Do not despair. There is light at the end of the tunnel. With advanced illumination technology and intuitive driver aids now almost a reality, we will begin to see our vehicles’ intelligence come to the rescue. Here are two good examples we hope to enjoy in the decades ahead.

Intelligent mobility

This does not mean speaking intelligently on your smart phone while driving at 120kph. That is clearly not a smart thing to do, even with a hands-free kit.

Driving requires full concentration, free of distractions that include sipping your hot coffee and speaking to your nagging partner. The automotive industry, however, is not naïve and does not trust you to take my advice. They have been designing technologies that allow vehicles to speak to each other. Car-to-X communication is at an advanced stage and allows vehicles to alert each other to an accident ahead. It will also send out alerts for fog, slippery surfaces and much more. These will be relayed to you as you drive.

For the last six years, the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA) has been working to enhance Car-to-X communication (vehicle to traffic infrastructure). Using a Car Communication Unit (CCU) fitted to your vehicle, information on dangerous situations ahead is sent to you using existing telecommunication infrastructure. This technology should be capable of freeing our cities of irritating traffic jams caused by police who have no clue how to manage traffic flow. It will also give you enough information to change your route for one with less congestion, or simply direct you to the nearest watering hole to wait it out.

From LED to laser

If you are married or in a cohabitating relationship, arriving at dusk will make you a hero, while staggering in at dawn will bring you down to zero on the popularity scale. On a more serious note, driving during these times of poor lighting can be a recipe for disaster unless your have Superman’s eyesight or a vehicle equipped with advanced lighting systems. These technologies have, over the last few decades, moved from halogen to xenon lights and now LED. The future however is laser lighting. New cars today come with daytime-running lights to help other drivers see you before they ram into you head-on. In addition, you now have access to headlights that will see around corners to help you corner more confidently. BMW, for example, introduced the Dynamic Light Stop technology that automatically illuminates a (potentially drunk) pedestrian or animal by the roadside. As well as having a light intensity thousands of times greater than conventional LEDs, laser consumes less energy and is therefore more fuel-efficient. Laser light is known to be dangerous but when used in vehicles of the future it will not be emitted directly but be converted into a form suitable for road traffic. This technology will see its first application in the BMW i8 concept that is close to being production-ready.

 

Six ways to stay safe

1 Lane departure assist: Keeps your vehicle in your lane by slight steering inputs and an audible alert.

2 Radar distance control: Also known as Distronic, it helps you keep your distance from the vehicle ahead, especially when you engage cruise control on long journeys.

3 Driver fatigue detection: An in-car sensor that monitors your eye movement, head angle and mouth shape to determine if you are about to fall asleep. An audible signal is activated to get your attention back on the road.

4 Emergency braking: This is when the vehicle automatically cuts engine power and applies the brakes to bring it to a stop when you do not apply enough braking force.

5 Blind spot assist: This technology also uses radar to detect cars in your blind spot behind and warns you if you start to change lanes.

6 Adaptive headlight assist: Your vehicle automatically adjusts the headlights depending on the distance of the oncoming car ahead to avoid blinding the driver.

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