Augmented reality: How smartphones could keep drivers safer


Technology often gets a bad reputation when it comes to driving safety, as cellphones and smartphone apps are becoming widely known as dangerous distractions. Yet other improvements in technology may keep drivers safer and more aware of what's happening on the road. Technology companies and auto manufacturers alike are now experimenting with augmented reality -- and exploring its possibilities for driving safety and car repairs.
Augmented reality combines reality with computer-generated features. For example, some smartphone users may be familiar with apps that let a user point the phone's camera at a business. The phone's screen shows that business, along with computer-generated extras, like consumer ratings, price points and other similar businesses nearby (and how far away they are). In other words, the device recognizes the actual building and supplements the user's view of it with pertinent information.
A new auto safety app, iOnRoad, works similarly. According to the app's website, drivers attach their smartphones to an in-car mount so that the camera is trained on the road ahead. The phone's display shows the road, just as it looks out the window. However, it also displays computer-generated graphics that show where the lanes are, how many seconds away the driver is from hitting the car ahead and the driver's speed. It also provides color-coded following distances. As the driver gets too close to another car, the "bubble" displaying the following distance turns from green to yellow to red.
If anything gravitates from what the app considers safe (the driver is dangerously close to hitting the car ahead, for example), the application sounds the alarm. Drivers receive a visual warning (a screen with the word "careful" appears) and an audio warning. By helping drivers brake in time to avoid accidents, the app promises to lower the number of accidents -- and auto insurance claims -- for those who use it.
Vehicle manufacturers are getting on board as well. GM is exploring the possibility of using augmented reality windshields that can alert drivers to a variety of dangers (like an animal running out in front of the car) and help them navigate foggy conditions.
BMW, meanwhile, is looking into using augmented reality for vehicle repairs. Mechanics at dealerships would be able to slip on augmented reality eyewear that highlights certain car parts and shows virtual animations demonstrating how the repair should be performed.
One of the major challenges of this technology is making sure the visuals don't distract the driver from the most important view of all -- the view of the actual road through the windshield. But with the right engineering and attention to road safety, augmented reality technology could come standard on future models.

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