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  • Translating Brake Signals
Apr 2008
BLACKSBURG, Va., April 4, 2008 -- Brake lights could learn a second language with a system that indicates a driver's intention to either slow down or stop, as opposed to just stop or go.

“The problem is that brake lights are yes and no -- on and off,” according to John Hennage of Montross, Va., a PhD student in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech.

Gwinn came up with the idea for communicating braking speed after being rear-ended in a chain-reaction accident. The (uninjured) woman in a car behind him said she couldn't tell how fast he was stopping. "I thought, wouldn’t it be a good idea if rear tail lights communicated better and the following driver knew how fast you were stopping so they could take appropriate action?”
John Hennage hooked the sensor circuit for the intelligent brake light system into a toy car to which he had added LED taillights, all powered by a 9-volt battery. (Photo: Virginia Tech)
Years later, his youngest daughter, a student at Virginia Tech, suggested Gwinn contact the university about his idea. In 2000, Gwinn wrote to the university president, which led to a meeting with Walter O’Brien, professor and then head of mechanical engineering. “He was very helpful and encouraging, saying that this concept had the potential of great application at a very low cost,” Gwinn said. “He subsequently introduced me to Mehdi Ahmadian, who was able to develop this project into a teaching/research curriculum over the next several years.”

08194brake.jpgWith the support of Manassas, Va., businessman Meade Gwinn, Hennage and Ahmadian invented an intelligent brake light system, which they will show off at the Mid-America Trucking Show ( at the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center in Louisville on March 27-29.

Hennage, who used to develop LED lights for commercial trucks, was invited to help students who were assigned to work on the project. They created a horizontal light bar with middle-range lights that glow amber to indicate when a car is slowing down. When it approaches a stop, red lights flash on either side of the amber lights; in a sudden stop, all of the lights flash red.

Unfortunately, the light bars cost $50 to produce, and the light bar would violate motor vehicle laws forbidding alterations to original equipment, said John Talerico, a licensing associate with Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties Inc. (VTIP). Last fall, Ahmadian and Talerico approached Hennage about developing a cheaper unit that does the same thing by tapping into existing lights -- for commercial trucks, rather than private cars. "Commercial vehicles typically have redundant lights,” Hennage said. “Private cars are 10 to 15 years behind commercial vehicles in terms of LED lighting.”

Hennage developed a gravity, or deceleration, sensor control. Under normal braking -- to slow or to stop slowly -- the tail lights work in the normal way. But under heavy braking, extra lights flash.

“We also have the ability to connect other sensors to the microcontroller, such as from the automatic braking system, the automatic traction control and the collision avoidance system,” said Hennage. “If any of these systems are activated, lights could flash to alert drivers of nearby vehicles.”

“There are various ways for this invention to work, and we have a working prototype,” said Talerico. “A manufacturer can take the specifications and produce this circuit in mass quantities.”

Gwinn said if the venture succeeds, "millions of drivers will find the roads a much safer place to drive."

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The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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