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Forget Google's autonomous car. To really save lives on the road, vehicles will have to talk to each other.
Known as V2V or vehicle-to-vehicle communications, such technology would allow cars to warn each other of their presence. One car could alert another that, "Hey, my idiot driver isn't going to stop for the red light, look out!" or "My owner has just hit something ahead of you, stop!"
Of course, the dialogue will be conducted wirelessly and with much less flair in binary code, but the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration hopes you get the idea when it publishes recommendations in the coming weeks for new V2V equipment to be installed in all cars. NHSTA will stop short of any official regulations, but the auto industry has been anxious--even, I would say, chomping at the bit -- to get such rules established.
The drive seemed engineered to scare the pants off me, but it actually proved how much safer 'smart' cars can be.
To see how such V2V technology will work, last month Ford gave me a demonstration of the technologies involved on a closed course. I sat in the front passenger seat of a specially tricked out 2014 Ford Taurus. On board was a V2V wireless communications system, warning lights, and some more additional safety systems. But unlike autonomous vehicles, it did not require built-in cameras or radar. The demonstration relied on the wireless communication with other similarly equipped vehicles and standard GPS location data.
Although the drive seemed engineered to scare the pants off me, it actually proved how much safer V2V cars can be, preventing accidents and saving lives. For example, accordion crashes, when a suddenly stopped vehicle on the highway causes a chain reaction of rear-end collisions, are quite common but can be prevented -- if other cars know a vehicle is stopped ahead.
My test driver demonstrated how the driver can be warned in enough time to brake safely in a variety of circumstances. Even when we couldn't see the car that was stopping, it would warn our vehicle of the danger. When coupled with active driving systems, such as collision prevention, it could even bring a car automatically to a halt.
Although they didn't demonstrate it -- thank goodness -- such collision avoidance warnings will work even around blind curves and hills, situations in which drivers now have little chance of preventing a collision. And not all the cars need to be outfitted with V2V chips and radios to make a difference. As long as one of the vehicles stopped ahead has it, your vehicle will at least receive a warning.
In another demonstration of how such systems can prevent a nasty crash, an SUV ahead of us drove along the road, blocking our view of anything ahead of it. Unbeknownst to us, a car in front of the SUV suddenly stopped and instead of braking, the SUV--intentionally--swerved to avoid it, leaving us suddenly staring at the stopped car's brake lights. It made me instinctively brace myself for impact, but the warning system and braking brought us to a halt.
V2V can even help with lane changes. How many times have you checked the lane next to you and signaled, only to have someone doing 90 mph zip by in the passing lane? My stunt, er, test driver demonstrated how V2V signals can warn you of such dangers even when you can't see them coming.
At a T-intersection a truck was strategically placed to block our right-hand view of oncoming traffic. As we edged out into the intersection, another Ford test driver barreled down the road toward us. An audible alarm and red flashing lights swept from left to right above the dash, tipping us off to the impending danger and allowing us to stop safely before we could even see the other car.
So is V2V the ultimate panacea for preventing accidents?
Not quite. Especially in its early implementations, the V2V systems will not automatically take control of vehicles. It's true that when coupled with collision prevention systems, V2V technology can prevent accidents if the car is traveling less than roughly 35 mph. However, allowing V2V warnings to trigger automatic systems in some situations could introduce new dangers. The reason that the Taurus only warned us at the T-intersection rather than stopping us is that a false positive alert could cause another car to hit us from behind or make it impossible to avoid a vehicle coming from the other direction.
Furthermore, V2V systems will be most effective when every car has one. You won't receive warnings from older cars, for example, and since the average age of a car these days in the U.S. is over 11 years, it will take years after the technology is introduced for it to reach a critical mass.
The V2V systems are relatively modest in terms of their abilities, as well. The standards that have been proposed, often referred to as Dedicated Short-Range Communications or DSRC, will only allow communication at distances reaching 900 to 1,500 feet. (It typically uses a form of W-Fi in the 5.9 GHz range at 75 MHz.) So in order to get other important information, such as traffic congestion miles ahead, cars will have to rely on cellular communications relayed from other vehicles.
And yes, there are security and privacy concerns that need to be dealt with. However, the Ford engineers pointed out that some basic security settings will prevent someone from, say, sitting on the side of the road and sending false V2V warnings to drivers.
Perhaps more important, all of this technology -- and more -- is available today. A Safety Pilot test involving 3,000 connected cars was conducted in Ann Arbor, MI, in 2012, for example. Drivers and automakers involved with the project were both positive about the results. So much so, that car makers are eager to get the technology into cars.
And after the demonstrations I've witnessed, so am I.