The not-too-distant future of driving: When cars can talk, crashes may be avoided

Fender benders, rear-enders and those three-car pileups that back up traffic may be going the way of the buggy whip.

Within a few years, cars whizzing down the highway will begin chatting among themselves. Once they all are equipped to join the conversation, every car will know the speed, distance and direction of every other car close enough to pose a risk.

Are cars slowing abruptly just beyond that tractor-trailer you can’t see around? You may get an alert, but if there’s no time for discussion, you may just feel your brakes squeeze on. A speeding pickup truck seems likely to run the red light as you approach the intersection? Your car may decide to stop rather than put you in danger.

Just as it has changed so many other aspects of life, wireless technology is about to revolutionize the way we drive.

“This is really a game-changing technology that could help cars from crashing into one another,” said Christopher Poe, assistant director at the Texas Transportation Institute. “You, in essence, could help prevent two cars from ever colliding, that being the ultimate goal.”

The concept is fairly simple. All cars will be equipped with short-range transmitters that use dedicated bandwidth to send information 10 times per second about where they are and what they are doing. The transmitters also will receive and make sense of the same information from every other vehicle within range.

The car will decide whether to give a heads-up to the driver or take appropriate defensive action itself. A driver alert could be a verbal warning, a seat vibration or a slight jerk on the seat belt.

“The technology is solid, but you have to prove that the right type of data can be moved from one vehicle to another vehicle and that vehicle could take action on that data,” said Poe, whose institute is a leading research agency affiliated with Texas A&M University.

It could cut highway fatalities and injuries by more than half, eliminating billions of dollars in medical bills. It could reduce by millions more what it costs to repair damage from the more than 6 million crashes each year. By governing the flow of traffic with real-time information, it can reroute drivers to avoid congestion and reduce time and fuel wasted while stuck in traffic.

“This connected-vehicle technology could address about 80 percent, or four out of five, of all the unimpaired driving crashes in America,” said Ron Medford, deputy director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Nearly half of all crashes examined by the Highway Loss Data Institute in 2007 were rear-end collisions, a type of accident that information swapping between cars could virtually eliminate.

“It’s really a communications technology,” Poe said. “You don’t have to wait a decade for this to happen. Because technology is moving so fast, you will get some applications that will be developed in the interim. You will still see companies and entrepreneurs trying to develop additional applications.”

NHTSA hopes a pilot program with 3,000 cars underway in Ann Arbor, Mich., will prove the reliability of the technology. The testing of vehicle-to-vehicle communication, or V2V, continues through summer 2013, and if all goes well officials plan to grapple with the policy issues by the end of next year.

V2V is just half of the technological equation. Even while it is busy chatting with other vehicles, the car transmitter also will be talking on the same short-range bandwidth with helpful friends at the roadside.

This is called vehicle-to-infrastructure, or V2I, communication, and it provides the car with a steady stream of useful information — for example, about an accident or work zone that is slowing traffic just over the next hill. Linked with a couple of useful tools, such as the Global Positioning System, V2I could suggest a bailout route that would get you home faster.

V2I also communicates with traffic signals. With reliable V2I information, the dream commute of catching green lights all the way home would not require alignment of the stars.

“You can adjust traffic signals to allow more traffic to travel through what we call the green band, so they don’t get stopped as much,” said Poe, who specializes in V2I research. “If you have the roadside talking to the vehicle, you can tell the driver, ‘Hey, if you drive at this speed you’re less likely to hit red lights,’ and where you lose a lot of your fuel efficiency is stopping and accelerating from a dead stop.”

It may take a decade or longer before all vehicles are fully equipped, but the vanguard of what is to come already is in evidence on U.S. roadways.

Acura, for example, made a big advertising buy during the recent NCAA basketball tournament to tout its backup sensors, which apply the brakes automatically to avert danger. It is among several automobile manufacturers that are using infrared distance sensors, radar and cameras to provide warnings about safe distances and when other vehicles are sliding dangerously into your lane.

Those and similar advancements that preceded V2V are expected to significantly reduce accidents, which the Insurance Information Institute said cost more than $1 billion in claims in 2010. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimated that if all passenger vehicles were equipped with forward collision warning, lane departure warning, side-view assist and adaptive headlights, which respond to the direction and speed of the vehicle, about a third of fatal crashes and 20 percent of those that result in injury could be prevented or mitigated.

The current generation of devices also may be integrated into V2V systems as they begin to find their way to the dashboard.

“The connected vehicle, that’s probably going to come on a little slower than some of the other concepts, because V2V only really works once every vehicle is equipped with this technology,” said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “To be honest with you, I think that where V2V may be most useful isn’t safety — it’s congestion management. I don’t want to dismiss the potential safety benefits. I just think they’re farther off.”

Some devices on the market, and many more apps coming soon, provide drivers with real-time help in routing around traffic trouble spots. But the combination of V2V and V2I provides data more immediately than traffic cameras or the network of location sensors now installed on many trucks and fleet vehicles.

If a great many cars suddenly slow a mile ahead, V2V could recommend that a driver take the next exit. If traction control is triggered on several cars just head, V2V could send a warning to be alert for slippery conditions.

Unless the federal government makes V2V mandatory, as it did with air bags and seat belts, it could take 10 to 20 years before most cars are equipped. But drivers could be encouraged to buy V2V equipment more rapidly if companies that make smartphones and GPS devices see a market edge in incorporating V2V and V2I applications.

“If it costs a whole lot to retrofit, that’s going to be a tough sale,” Lund said. “But if you lived in a place like San Francisco or Washington, D.C., where the commutes can be pretty horrible, then if there’s something you could buy that would give you an advantage in knowing how to avoid congestion in real time, I think there might be a market for that.”

Although no one is willing to put a price tag on a V2V transmitter, there’s general agreement that they would be less expensive than an array of cameras and sensors.

Medford said that NHTSA has anticipated public fear that transmitters could be used to keep track of people but that the nature of the system does not allow that.

“It is just a message that is received and acted on in the vehicle,” Medford said. “Nothing is retained, and nothing is identified in that message.”

Lund theorized that one way to get the system fully functioning more quickly would be to equip all vehicles with a bare minimum of a transmitter that sends a signal indicating it’s position.

“Then, vehicles that had smarter systems could at least know where they were and react to them,” Lund said. “But that’s all to be figured out. It’s kind of like ‘Star Wars.’ ”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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