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Software Update Could Improve Drivers’ Situational Awareness and Reduce Crashes

Sam Abuelsamid
Mar 04, 2024

Trucks traveling on a highway at dusk or dawn, with motion blur and light trails

During the recent Chicago Auto Show, a company called Emergency Safety Solutions (ESS) highlighted an innovative approach to addressing a very common scenario that happens on a daily basis across the US and around the world: collisions with stationary or disabled vehicles. While much of the effort to reduce traffic crashes, fatalities, and injuries over the past decade has focused on driver assist and automated driving technology, ESS has an approach that doesn’t require any technological breakthroughs, just a software update to most vehicles.

Impact Research analyzed federal crash data in the US and found that between 2016 and 2018, an average of nearly 15,000 people were killed or injured annually in disabled vehicle crashes. These crashes may involve vehicles that have a flat tire or some mechanical failure, have run out of fuel, or have already been involved in another crash. For the drivers running into these vehicles, the problem is situational awareness. The stationary vehicles often aren’t visible enough.

For decades, vehicles have been equipped with hazard warning lights that flash at a frequency of about 1-2 hertz. Studies done by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) evaluated how changing the flashing pattern of hazard lamps might help improve situational awareness for drivers. VTTI found that increasing the flash rate to between 4 and 6 hertz significantly improved drivers’ attention and sense of urgency while remaining low enough not to risk triggering seizures in those that are susceptible to the effects of flashing lights.

Drivers were found to respond 12 seconds sooner and reduce speed by 7%, and the likelihood of them moving over a lane to provide extra room increased from 30% to 87%. None of this requires any new hardware in the vehicle, just an update to the software that controls the flashers on newer vehicles. The first automaker to deploy what ESS calls the Hazard Enhanced Location Protocol, or H.E.L.P., is Tesla. This feature was included in a 2023 over-the-air software update to trigger the faster hazard flash rate if an airbag deployment has occurred. Other scenarios, such as a flat tire, dead battery, or manual triggering, are being evaluated as well.

ESS is also working with Stellantis and HAAS Alert to integrate HAAS’s cloud-based alerting system. HAAS currently has communication devices in thousands of emergency vehicles that send location information to its servers. In 2023, Stellantis began displaying alerts from HAAS in the Uconnect infotainment system of many of its vehicles to make drivers aware of when emergency vehicles were nearby and where they were headed. If a vehicle with triggered H.E.L.P flashers could also be displayed for drivers through the HAAS platform, drivers could slow down or move over even before they see the faster flashers.

For vehicles that have even partial automation that can manage speed or execute automatic lane changes—such as GM’s Super Cruise, Ford’s BlueCruise, or Stellantis’ new hands-free driver assist—these alerts could automatically trigger such adjustments without the driver intervening.

The most important element of the ESS approach is that it uses technologies that are already widely implemented in current production vehicles such as electronically controlled LED lighting and data connectivity. No breakthroughs in AI or high performance computing are required, just software updates. While automakers want to use software-defined vehicles to generate new revenue streams, this is an actual societal benefit that everyone should be implementing.