Talking cars could save your life
CHICAGO (MarketWatch)--Imagine you're approaching an intersection where the light has just turned green and your car suddenly warns you that there's a truck barreling through the red light on the cross street.
Your quick reaction could save your life, another driver's and maybe even pedestrians.
A new technology which allows vehicles to communicate with each other is here and 3,000 drivers in Ann Arbor, Mich. are starting a year-long test to determine how well it works in the real world.
"With this technology that other car is literally talking to your car," said Mike Shulman, technical leader of research at
Dubbed V2V, or vehicle-to-vehicle, the technology is introducing a new level of computerization with 360-degree coverage. That gives drivers an extra set of eyes and ears that can "see" around trucks and into blind intersections, sensing potential dangers from speeding or stalled vehicles. It can nudge you if you're wandering into the wrong lane and alert you if you're falling asleep at the wheel or driving too fast for conditions.
Through what amounts to a surprisingly simple marriage of GPS radar and wireless capabilities, teams from the Dept. of Transportation and partners that include both domestic and foreign auto makers ranging from Ford and
"It's a technology that can see even things that we as drivers can't see and that really helps us to prevent accidents," Shulman said.
Reducing crashes, particularly fatal impacts, is at the heart of this decadelong research. Motor vehicle-related injuries killed almost 34,000 people in the U.S. in 2009, the year for which the most recent data are available. Motor vehicle collisions are among the leading causes of death for Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
"Most collisions happen because drivers space out," said William Whyte, chief scientist at Security Innovation, an application security and cryptology company that has worked closely with the DOT on securing the car communications.
He crashed three years ago when he fell asleep at the wheel for what he says was only one second. He believes that if the alarm on his phone had been connected to the sensors he could have avoided the accident.
"All you need is just enough of an alert to stop the driver from spacing out and a second's worth of warning to turn a fatal crash into a nonfatal crash or no crash at all," he said.
The government has high hopes this new system can save as many as 25,600 lives lost to crashes each year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will use the results of the Ann Arbor test to determine whether it will mandate the connected-vehicle technology in cars by 2014. If so, it could be in cars as soon as 2017.
"In the past, the U.S. DOT has focused on helping people survive crashes. Connected vehicle safety will change the paradigm by helping people avoid crashes," according to DOT's Research and Innovative Technology Administration site.
Of course, a system like this only works when there's "cooperative technology," meaning both vehicles are equipped with it. Like seat belts and air bags before it, this is a lifesaving breakthrough that may take years to be fully functional.
But unlike those passive-safety components that minimize damage or bodily harm, the government hopes this will eliminate 80% of all vehicle-to-vehicle crashes.
The implications are enormous for insurance costs, medical costs and even repair costs.
"Now we move into this world where we can eliminate the crash because we can sense it before it's about to happen," Shulman said. "That's a whole new level of capability and safety that's the breakthrough we've been looking for."
The government-sponsored test, managed by the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, is the largest yet of the connected-vehicle technology and will involve regular people driving cars, mini vans, SUVs, trailers, trucks and buses for regular things like dropping kids off at school, going to work and making deliveries.
Sixty-four new vehicles, developed by eight different car makers, have the technology systems integrated while others will be retrofitted with adaptive and after-market packages. (The technology ultimately also could be available as an application on a smartphone.)
The radar technology acts as the locator of information while the Wi-Fi is the deliverer.
"It's not that simple but not that much more complicated than that," Shulman said. "It's taking that information that's already in your car and sending it out over a short-range link."
Among the concerns of traffic engineers is how accurate the system is and whether it is more distracting than helpful. Though the vehicles will "talk" to each other at a speed of 10 messages per second, drivers won't "hear" all of that, and in many cases, any of it.
"When we need to alert you, we will do it with a tone--a beep-beep-beep--or vibrate your seats or flash some lights," Shulman said. Each car maker could use its own type of alert system.
Forty UMTRI researchers will be looking at how well the infrastructure for the system works, how much noise is generated at intersections, based on the number of V2V vehicles and their proximity to each other, and how much interaction and warning time is used, said James Sayer, the project leader at the university.
"We're trying to understand that if the warning is sent, is it effective?," he said. "Did it get the driver's attention and did it help avert what might otherwise have been a crash?"
There are already some of these safety features on cars, though they tend to be in higher-priced autos. Forward collision warnings, for example, alert drivers that the car ahead is driving too slow or stalled. Side mirrors are now able to cover blind spots.
Some cruise control features are adaptive and will automatically adjust the car's speed to maintain a set distance from the car ahead. Lane-departure systems warn you that you're veering out of the lane.
But those are one-dimensional sensors, what's called "contact technology" that only looks straight ahead or behind over short ranges. They don't tip you off about the motorcyclist coming up on your left or the auto two cars ahead that is stalled.
"This technology helps much more with high-speed collisions of 300 meters or more," Whyte said. "The high-speed collisions are the ones that cause the most deaths. This will give you more notice when you need it."
The data compiled also will help researchers understand driver and vehicle behaviors in near misses, something there's very little data on, Whyte said. It also will offer some direction on where else it might be installed, say on traffic signals, work-zone equipment or pavement sensors.