"Intelligent" Cars "Talk" With Highway, One Another

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"We think some of them could have significant safety and mobility benefits—and by the way, some commercial benefits as well. And that's OK."

Neil Schuster, president and CEO of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, notes that some intelligent transport initiatives have already become standard in recent years.

"Every major city uses cameras, sensors, and other technology to manage traffic, to make real-time decisions and let people know what's happening with things like electronic road signs," Schuster said.

"We don't realize how much a vehicle these days is a computer," he continued. "Large companies can use these technologies to track and manage fleets. Many people have intelligent-transportation features on their cell phones, or types of navigation systems where they can get real-time maps. We're trying to make people aware of what's possible.

"I can't break 120 on the golf course, no matter what I do. I can buy the best clubs, I can use those illegal balls, but I have some real limitations as an individual. As a driver we also have our limits, but technology can help me be a better driver."

Car Talk

But can technology help reduce the staggering number of accidents and injuries on the road? One way it might do that is through the future prospects of vehicle-to-vehicle communication.

"We had this concept of talking cars," Ford's Miller said. "What would they say to each other? They might describe their vehicle type, where they are, how fast they are going and in which direction. That information might be similar to the transponder system that the [U.S. Federal Aviation Administration] uses. With that information, they can give directions to pilots to avoid possible threats. You could conceivably do the same thing with a vehicle. Eventually you might warn the driver, and if he didn't respond to a developing situation, the system could do a brake assist or a steering assist. There are a lot of safety applications."

There's also tremendous room for safety improvement on the nation's roads.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that driver error or inattention caused 20 to 30 percent of the 6.3 million accidents reported in 2000. Most rear-end, road-departure, lane-change and intersection accidents are preventable. Their cost is high; over 40,000 deaths are reported per year, with millions more injured. Extended costs to the U.S. economy are estimated at 200 to 300 billion dollars.

Vehicle-to-vehicle communication faces a serious infrastructure challenge. For it to be effective, all cars must be equipped with compatible sensors.

Not so with vehicle-to-roadside communication, such as that in the Ford-Minnesota initiative.

"If you took every car on the road in rush hour, what if even 15 percent of those people had the information to make a different choice?" Schuster asks. That makes a huge difference, and everybody benefits.

But everyone involved seems to agree that reaching even those limited numbers will be a challenge.

One major roadblock is the need for standardization throughout the industry and across different governmental agencies. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has, however, allocated a bandwidth for intelligent-vehicles purposes, which the FHA official described as "a relatively generous spectrum for this purpose in an age when the spectrum is pretty tight."

Another problematic issue is personal privacy. Many people are concerned with the possibility of tracking individual vehicles, though the FHA official insists privacy is a primary concern of government as well. "We are making an effort to be anonymous," he said. "We're not interested in tracking individual vehicles. Everyone is very sensitive about the privacy issues."

Finally, there are the enormous institutional policy and funding challenges inherent in such an ambitious and wide-reaching plan. Who will benefit the most from such technology, and therefore who will pay for it?

It could be consumers who pay to drive the safety and traffic technology forward. The systems could be packaged with in-car concierge systems, which may prove attractive to car shoppers.

"History suggests that the real killer apps for this technology might be things that we haven't planned," the FHA official notes. "In addition to safety, that's a major reason why industry might be interested."

This story was independently reported by National Geographic News. Ford Motor Company provided funding for coverage of the automotive industry.

For more car news, scroll down.

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