Keeping the Squad Cars Running

Author: John Monczunski

It’s not a good thing for law enforcement if police cruisers won’t cruise. With increasing regularity, that has been happening at the South Bend Police Department and other departments across the country. All too often squad cars are mysteriously becoming victims of dead batteries.

It turns out the culprit killing the cars is the copious amounts of high-tech crime-fighting gadgetry that have been installed in recent years. The typical police car may be fitted with as much as $20,000 worth of electronic gear, including a laptop computer, video camera, alarm, one or more two-way radios and a global positioning system. All these items cause a colossal drain on the car’s battery.

Fortunately, a team of Notre Dame electrical engineering students under the supervision of Professional Specialist Mike Schafer has come up with a solution. Last year, the students in Schafer’s senior design class, Jason Kulick, Michael Gerardi, Martin Nguyen and Peter Van Loon, fashioned a control device that works something like a traffic cop directing power demand.

Their invention monitors and records the flow of electrical current in the car. When it detects a low battery, it shuts off some of the electronic equipment, thus conserving energy. The priority of devices turned off can be set by the individual police departments. The controller also makes sure that all critical equipment is turned on when the officer starts the car.

The students tested a prototype in a squad car on loan from the South Bend Police Department. Another design team from the class will continue the project, refining the design this year.