Detroit, MI, November 6, 2021 (Detroit Free Press) – Imagine driving your Ram 1500 down a busy stretch of road when an alert pops up on the Uconnect infotainment screen.
“CAUTION Emergency Vehicle Nearby.”
Is that likely to catch your attention more than the lights and siren?
Stellantis is apparently guessing so. The automaker is teaming up with Chicago-based HAAS Alert to test a system that would deliver safety alerts directly to vehicles.
In a recent news release, Stellantis said its initial test would include company-owned 2018 and newer Jeep, Ram, Chrysler and Dodge vehicles in metro Detroit. Depending on the results, the company said it might develop a commercial rollout plan.
The program is one of two notification warning systems the company is planning to test in southeast Michigan that aim to tackle a pressing safety issue and pave “the way for autonomous technology.”
The effort comes at a key moment on America’s roads.
Just last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released its crash fatality estimates for the first half of this year, showing "the largest six-month increase ever recorded in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System’s history.” That 18.4% increase over 2020 represents 20,160 vehicle crash fatalities in the first half of 2021, the largest number in that amount of time since 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Crashes involving emergency responders happen as well. In 2019, the most recent year for available statistics, an estimated 38,000 police, fire, and emergency medical services personnel were involved in motor vehicle crashes, according NHTSA. Of those involved, 24 died and an estimated 5,000 were injured.
And the risk is not likely to disappear even as vehicles employ higher levels of advanced driver assistance systems.
For instance, in August, NHTSA announced an investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot system after its Office of Defects Investigation “identified 11 crashes in which Tesla models of various configurations have encountered first responder scenes and subsequently struck one or more vehicles involved with those scenes.”
HAAS Alert CEO Cory Hohs, in a news release about his company’s efforts, said lights and sirens aren’t always enough.
“Between mobile devices, advanced infotainment systems and other modern innovations, drivers today are more distracted than ever,” Hohs said. “Modern vehicle cabins are designed to insulate drivers from external road noise, so drivers don’t even hear sirens until they’re dangerously close.”
The news release, from October, quoted Michigan State Police Capt. Richard Arnold, commander of the Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division, discussing how state police had already used HAAS Alert's system.
The agency “equipped a small number of patrol vehicles with digital alert units, or ‘digital sirens,’ that can provide warnings directly inside motorists’ vehicles via mobile applications enabled to receive them.” Arnold said more than 108,000 motorists had received the alerts, “and we believe our officers and motorists are safer because of it.”
The idea to have the automaker test such a system came from something called “Star Up,” a “company-wide innovation challenge that enables Stellantis employees to present new customer-focused technology concepts to the highest levels of management,” according to the release from Stellantis, which formed this year from the merger of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Peugeot maker PSA Group.
The other Stellantis project, involving a pair of 2021 Jeep Wrangler 4xe plug-in hybrid electric vehicles equipped with Uconnect, would start at the University of Michigan’s Mcity test site with plans to expand to the Detroit area.
An advanced computing platform and a 5G cellular connection would help communicate safety risks to both pedestrians and approaching vehicles, the company said.
The project could use “on-site cameras and sensors to collect detailed data at an intersection that is beyond what a single vehicle can ‘see’ with its on-board systems,” the company said.
It’s not clear how long it might be before such an alert system is available.
Pedestrian fatalities, in particular, have been part of a troubling trend in recent years, so efforts to limit them would be welcomed by safety advocates.
In May, the Governors Highway Safety Association warned of “the largest-ever annual increase in the pedestrian death rate” since NHTSA established its Fatality Analysis Reporting System in 1975 based on preliminary data for last year. The association said there were 6,721 pedestrian deaths in 2020, which would represent a 4.8% increase over the previous year’s 6,412.