'Talking' cars may someday warn of crashes and save lives

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 8:01 PM

A new crash warning system that allows vehicles to "talk" to each other more than 900 feet away was demonstrated for federal officials Tuesday, marking a significant step in efforts by the government and automakers to put advanced communications technology in cars.

Using specialized WiFi signals that are emitted 10 times every second, the technology senses when a collision is imminent and alerts a driver through flashing red lights and beeps.

In the demonstration in the parking lot near RFK Stadium, the system notified a driver when it detected another car speeding through a red light in an upcoming intersection, of several cars blocking the highway ahead, and of a car zooming up from behind.

A report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in October reported that such "vehicle-to-vehicle" warning systems could address nearly 80 percent of reported crashes that do not involve drunk drivers.

"This technology has the potential to save a lot of lives," said Peter Appel, administrator of the Research and Innovative Technology Administration at the Department of Transportation, after riding along for the demo.

The technology, if successfully developed, could become mandatory in 2013 when federal officials are scheduled to decide whether to require such systems.

In the absence of such a requirement, the first challenge may be overcoming a basic chicken-and-egg problem. If other people don't buy the systems, they will be nearly useless. In that case, persuading the first consumers to purchase the technology may be difficult.

Implementation of the system would require the nation's automakers, normally competitive, to agree on how such systems should work and what kind of information they should share. So far, nearly all the major automakers have joined a consortium to set standards.

Ford, which conducted Tuesday's demonstration for federal officials and the media, is expected to announce during this week's Washington Auto Show that it will invest more in the technology. The Department of Transportation has already spent more than $40 million on the technology, with an additional $36 million slated for more research, officials said. Research by the government and automakers is supposed to be finished within two years.

The warning systems, however, face technical challenges.

The WiFi signals between cars are sent via a channel allocated by the Federal Communications Commission. Engineers are trying to cope with "channel loading" when there are more than 100 cars within the 300-meter radius, officials said.

Moreover, there is some fear that hackers could fool the systems into thinking that others cars are in the area - setting off alarms and snarling traffic. The automakers must ensure that the signals vehicles are receiving are actually from other cars. Setting up electronic certifications also has to be done in a way that addresses the concerns of privacy advocates and does not identify specific drivers.

"We don't want people to feel there is some tracking device on the car," said Michael Shulman, a technical leader for the project at Ford. "But we have to make sure the other car you're sensing is not some guy on an overpass with a laptop. So there are obstacles, but we think we have ways of overcoming them."

Some cars already have limited radar devices that can detect obstacles in the front, as well as those in the blind spots missed by mirrors. Such systems can cost $1,000 or more.

The advantage of the WiFi technology is not only that it is far cheaper - possibly adding as little as $100 to the cost of the car - but also that it can detect other vehicles much farther away and in all directions, officials said.

The system's low price tag would allow manufacturers to put it in both luxury and economy models.

"We want to be able to sell this on the Fiestas as well as the Lincolns," Shulman said.

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