Two years ago I wrote that new technology to alert drivers when their vehicle was wandering out of its lane should be termed “texting assist,” because the only use I found for the systems I road-tested was that they made sending text messages while driving a much easier task.
Texting while driving, of course, is illegal in 46 states including Michigan, so I had a tongue-in-cheek disclaimer that the technology, also called “lane maintenance,” “lane-keep assist” and “lane-departure alert,” was a precursor to more advanced technologies aimed at helping develop future self-driving cars. Ultimately, all this is to reduce crashes.
Early lane-keep assist systems — available in new cars for seven years — worked by using a camera to locate the edges and center of a road, mostly by using the painted lines. Drivers were warned through vibrations in the steering wheel or seat bolsters, or with audible alarms, when the vehicle crossed the lines. The systems worked best on newer, well-marked highways, but not at all on many rural roads.
However, even in my most fatigued physical states, I don’t find it difficult to keep a car in a lane, and couldn’t imagine a condition where I would need an electronic system to help me do so.
I wasn’t alone: An Insurance Institute for Highway Safety IIHS study in 2016 showed that many drivers were turning off the lane-keep systems. This made it difficult to determine if the systems were doing any good at all.
“Lane-departure warning has the potential to prevent a lot of the most serious crashes,” said Ian Reagan, the study’s lead author. “However, if people consider it a turn-signal nanny, they may not accept the feature.”
A 2011 study by the Highway Loss Data Institute prompted its vice president, Matt Moore, to say, “Lane-departure warning may end up saving lives down the road, but so far these particular versions aren’t preventing insurance claims. It may be that drivers are getting too many false alarms, which could make them tune out the warnings or turn them off completely.”
My experiences were congruent with these studies. But now, a new study from IIHS — as well as a long trip in a big Ford van — convinced me there are good things ahead for lane-keep technology.
In August, the IIHS released findings from a new study showing that lane-keep assist reduces single-vehicle, sideswipe and head-on crashes 11 percent, and also lowers the injury rates from the same types of crashes 21 percent.
“This is the first evidence that lane-departure warning is working to prevent crashes of passenger vehicles on U.S. roads,” explained IIHS vice president for research Jessica Cicchino. “Given the large number of fatal crashes that involve unintentional lane departures, technology aimed at preventing them has the potential to save a lot of lives.”
When I dig into my own memory database, the only vehicle I ever had trouble keeping in its lane was a Ford Econoline van in 1982, in which we were towing a race car on a trailer across Wisconsin. It didn’t help that the van had about three inches of steering wheel free-play and its tires were approaching the ends of their useful lives.
Last week I drove Ford’s latest Transit van. Vans these days are dramatically better at tracking inside of their lanes on the highway; I discovered that on a trip in Ford’s newest Transit 350 HR DRW, equipped with lane-keep assist. Even without the lane-keep assist technology, the latest and largest Transit van is much easier to drive down a highway than previous-generation Econoline vans, even though it’s more than nine feet tall and exposed to much greater effects of wind turbulence and lateral rocking on pavement swells.
I would never have thought the Transit would need electronic assist to keep it in its lane, but a recent trip trailering a replica race car 250 miles downstate to a shop convinced me otherwise.
Here’s how the Ford Transit system works: The lane-keep assist system vibrates the steering wheel, which alerted me that the Transit was touching the white lines on U.S. 127 north of Lansing. The lines were often topped by construction cones and unusual lane changes around road work.
It was a help to me to have this warning. Wind and road conspired to pivot the trailer and create forces on the rear of the Transit’s body. Jeremy McClain, head of auto supplier Continental’s safety and chassis unit in North America, explains that complex trailering forces are exaggerated by wind and road conditions, which means no matter how well-developed a tow vehicle’s chassis, lane-keep assist technology will be a major help.
It will get even better, too. Last week I also participated in a demonstration of new technology by Continental to recognize and separate road surfaces from ditches by pulsing infrared light, which is intended to supplement the cameras used in today’s lane-keep technology. The so-called “3-D high-resolution flash lidar” is expected to be phased into lane-keep assist systems so they will work without clearly painted lines on the pavement.