In a Road That's All Eyes, the Driver Finds an Ally

R. A. Hettinga rah at
Fri May 14 14:30:04 PDT 2004


The New York Times

May 13, 2004

In a Road That's All Eyes, the Driver Finds an Ally

BOUT 12 years ago, Martin Dicks was trapped in dense fog during a harrowing
four-hour commute to his job as a firefighter in central London.

"Virtually all I could see on the road was a cat's-eye reflector every now
and then," Mr. Dicks said, recalling his trip down one of Britain's major
highways. "I figured that if I could make the cat's-eyes more visible, I
could probably save more lives than I could in the fire service."

A back injury forced Mr. Dicks out of the fire department shortly
afterward, giving him the time to pursue that goal. His training as an
electrical engineer provided the necessary skills.

Now, after perfecting illuminated markers that are embedded in the road
surface to guide motorists through bad weather or warn of dangerous
conditions, Mr. Dicks's company, Astucia Traffic Management Systems, is
going a step further. Its latest creation is an embedded stud equipped with
a camera that catches speeders, monitors traffic for criminals or stolen
cars and even checks for bald tires on the fly.

"Nobody knows it's a camera or a speed trap," Mr. Dicks said of his latest

Mr. Dicks's original idea was quite simple in concept. He wanted to create
an illuminated road marker containing its own power source, a solar cell.
At night or in bad weather, light from approaching vehicles would generate
enough power to light up the marker, which consisted of light-emitting
diodes. An illuminated marker would be more visible than a plain reflector,
and the idea was that a car passing over the markers would cause them to
stay illuminated long enough so that they would provide a warning trail of
lights for any vehicles close behind.

The trouble, at first, was the technology available in the early 1990's.
Photovoltaic cells were not as efficient as they are today. And at the
time, Mr. Dicks recalled, "the concept of a white L.E.D. was nowhere."

Working mostly with family members at first, Mr. Dicks produced a prototype
marker within two years. He dodged the white L.E.D. problem by combining
the glow from red, green and blue arrays. The group not only overcame the
limitations of solar cells, but also managed to engineer markers that
turned red to warn when the gap between two cars was dangerously small.

Mr. Dicks said the technology both impressed and alarmed British government
highway officials.

"They were frightened about everyone using the product on roads from one
end of the country to the other," he said. "They thought it would make
their budgets disappear."

The first markers cost roughly twice the price of conventional embedded
road studs. As a result, their use was restricted at first to especially
fog-prone or dangerous sections of roads as well as crosswalks, including
some in the United States.

Mr. Dicks was not the only person with a desire to illuminate to road
markers. After a friend struck and killed a pedestrian in 1991 at a
crosswalk in Santa Rosa, Calif., Michael Harrison developed a system that
uses flashing L.E.D.'s in the road surface to make crosswalks more visible.
The company he founded in 1994, LightGuard Systems, now has about 700
installations in the United States.

A study of 100 illuminated crosswalks by Katz, Okitsu & Associates, a
traffic engineering firm based in Southern California, estimates that
adding the blinking L.E.D.'s to crosswalks can reduce pedestrian accidents
by 80 percent.

The original Astucia markers were glued onto the road surface. That left
them vulnerable to snowplow blades and to constant pounding from car and
truck tires.

Mr. Dicks wanted to put the markers into holes drilled into the road
surface. The key, he said, was finding self-healing resins for the top
lenses that would be flush with the surface and subjected to much wear and

"It's like running your fingernail on a rubber sheet," he said of the
plastics' behavior. "The mark it leaves goes away."

Advances in solar-panel technology also allowed Astucia to develop markers
that could store electricity all day and then constantly illuminate
particularly dangerous sections of roads at night.

Other features followed. Optical systems inside the casing are able to
monitor the atmosphere for fog. Electrical resistance detectors can check
for standing water. The addition of a thermometer allows the marker to
predict ice.

But getting high-resolution digital cameras into the flush-mounted housings
was a more difficult task. It ultimately required the development of a
special series of lenses that in effect allowed the camera to look upward
and forward from its subsurface location.

The cameras (the system can use either normal or infrared sensors) provide
remarkably detailed images, according to Mr. Dicks. "You can clearly see
everything underneath a vehicle, although I'm not sure why you'd want to do
that," he said.

The police, however, are likely to be interested in seeing the license
plates of vehicles traveling above the speed limit or through red lights.
To that end, Astucia has developed a system that is operating on a highway
in Scotland. It employs three embedded cameras to give front, rear and side
views of passing vehicles. Other embedded sensors project two infrared
beams over the road that are used to time traffic and determine its speed.
The images and the speed data travel under the road by cable to a computer.
It in turn relays the data by satellite to Astucia's offices.

The system is currently being used to monitor traffic slowdowns. When it
detects them, it turns on illuminated markers farther up the road as a
warning. Mr. Dicks said that its speed measurements were accurate within
0.5 percent, well within the tolerances demanded for traffic enforcement.

Similarly, he said, the systems can be combined with optical character
recognition software to automatically track stolen vehicles or cars
believed to be used by suspected criminals or terrorists.

The United States branch of Astucia began demonstrating the camera system -
which costs about $50,000 for a package of three cameras, sensors and
supporting electronics - to police and highway officials less than a month
ago. John Kerridge, the subsidiary's president, reported considerable
interest in the system for both traffic and broader law enforcement. But he
added that public resistance could be one obstacle to its adoption.

"We all break the law regarding speeding," Mr. Kerridge said. "The system
may leave a bad taste in motorists' mouths at the beginning. But when their
insurance starts going down and stolen vehicles start getting recovered,
the benefits will overcome that."

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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