A newly designed, low-cost sensor might improve automobile safety systems. (Credit: Daniel A. Anderson)

UC IRVINE (US)—Drivers worldwide soon will navigate dangerous road conditions more safely, thanks to new sensor technology. The device features a microscopic gyroscope that alerts the safety system to correct when it detects the vehicle beginning to spin or roll.

The micro-electro-mechanical systems, or MEMS, gyroscope is a significant technological step forward because it can operate under harsh conditions and it also is relatively inexpensive.

Microscopic gyroscopes are helping enable an emerging technology called electronic stability control. The resulting system helps prevent accidents by automatically activating brakes on out-of-control vehicles. The technology can be particularly useful for vehicles with a higher center of gravity, which makes them prone to rolling.

A research team led by Andrei Shkel, mechanical and aerospace engineering professor and director of the University of California, Irvine’s MicroSystems Laboratory, designed the new 1.7 millimeter-wide device.

“To be useful for electronic stability control, these sophisticated microscopic sensors have to be fast, reliable, and cheap,” Shkel says. “They also must operate with confidence in the harsh automotive environment, which encompasses a daunting combination of factors including temperature, vibration, shock, and humidity.”

Electronic stability control is available in luxury vehicles, but sensors made from quartz were too expensive for widespread installation. Innovations in MEMS gyroscope technology make these systems more affordable. Shkel expects the sensors to be widely deployed after about four years of testing. His goal is to have a reliable, sophisticated stability system in every car.

“In the next few years, these systems will be as common as present-day passenger protection airbags, he says. “They will help save millions of lives.”

Funding for the UCI project came from Systron Donner Automotive, a manufacturer of advanced automotive safety devices, and a UC Discovery Grant.

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