I have to confess that at times in my life I have driven on tires that were less than road worthy. You probably have too. Early in my life, there were other priorities for my meager cash, but now my only excuse is neglect due to inattention. Today's tires go so many more miles than yesteryear's tires, so it's easy to forget about them. On one of my cars, I have tires rated for 80,000 miles. For me, that means I don’t have to think about them for about 10 years. But when they do get worn, I want to be on top of it. Tires are probably one of the most important safety devices on your car. The quality of the tread on your tires plays a major role in how well your car corners and stops. I can certainly feel the difference between wore and new tires, particularly on curvy roads or wet highways where it's easy to hydroplane.


Having to remember to periodically check your tire tread might soon become a thing of the past. Smart roads will do it for us. That's right, roads. With brains. And eyes.  


It's all part of the 15 billion intelligent, connected devicesexpected online by 2015 that will be in constant communiqué with each other — and us when we need to be engaged as well. Like when our tires are getting unsafe.


The brains behind this tire-checking aspect of smart roads (there will be other smart road devices as well) is a German company named ProContour. They've developed the ProContour H3-D, a device that sits under the road in a sealed grate and uses a synchronized laser measuring system and camera that can capture tread depth as a tire passes over it at 75 mph. That's right, 75 mph (120 km/h).


The processing power behind this wonder comes from an embedded computer made by Kontron, a Premier member of the Intel® Embedded and Communications Alliance. Thanks to the parallel processing power of a 1.2 GHz Intel® Core™2 Duo Processor, the Kontron* ThinkIO-Duo(a DIN rail PC) gives the ProContour H3-D all the image processing speed it needs to calculate the tread depth of a tire in just a little more than two milliseconds. Passive-cooled and rugged with no hard drives or other moving parts, the Kontron ThinkIO-Duo is just the kind of carefree device that can take the vibration and pounding of a busy highway.


Let's look a little closer at the speed in which the ProContour HD-3 works. A fast CMOS sensor detects when a vehicle is running over the measuring head. Once a vehicle is detected, the lasers immediately go into action oscillating a specific measuring pattern for 2.4 milliseconds over the contact area of the tire. During this time the camera captures several high resolution images (1536 x 512 pixels) with a maximal frequency of up to 16,000 images a second. This image data is then transferred via two interrupt-capable Gigabit-Ethernet interfaces to the Kontron ThinkIO-Duo which processes the image data in real time. This information can then be transferred via Ethernet cable or wireless LAN to activate warning systems, license plate readers, cameras, or barriers. It can even send its data via the Internet hundreds of miles away to wherever records are stored, such as the department in charge of a state's or province's motor vehicles licensing.


One thing I find particularly interesting is the tough challenge this application presents to programmers. Think of all the different tread patterns that are available for vehicles. Because the ProContour H3-D works independently from any outside source, programmers have to teach the software how and where to look to get actionable data from images of several thousand different tread shapes. This takes extensive testing to get right — and lots of processing power.


What will happen if your tires are showing serious wear? That depends on what authorities plan to do with the information. They could use the information to send you a warning in the mail, perhaps with a nifty snapshot of you behind the wheel. Or they could use a display right on the highway to tell you that you need new tires, just like displays are now used to tell you your speed. The bottom line is if we get more people to maintain their car with good tires, we could see perhaps less accidents due to tire-related causes. And that would be good for everyone.


A device like the ProContour H3-D makes you wonder what else we could be embedding in roads and other places to check essential safety systems. Such as car headlights and turn lights. What ideas do you have for smart roads?