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

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
May 21, 2004

In Minnesota, state police cars, ambulances, and government vehicles will soon carry a small piece of extra cargo—a sensing device that collects data as it rolls down the state's roadways. Ford Motor Company officials call the program a prototype for a next-generation travel-advisory system.

During their daily rounds, state-owned vehicles will gather traffic-related data like speed, location, and direction of travel. The sensors will also record weather information, such as windshield-wiper and headlight use, outside temperature, and traction-control-system data.

The data will be wirelessly transmitted to the state Condition Acquisition Reporting System (CARS), where analysts can use it to create weather and traffic advisories. The advisories will be available on highway message signs, special telephone lines, and Web sites.

"With GPS data, weather and road condition info, and these road sensors, we can also help the [department of transportation] to deploy municipal resources correctly," said Ron Miller, project leader for Intelligent Vehicle Technologies at Ford Research and Advanced Engineering. "They can send salt, or road repair crews where they are needed. It can also help dispatchers route emergency-response teams and road-maintenance crews."

Miller explains that the current technology test is just the tip of the iceberg. "We can't have message signs everywhere, and we have to get the information to drivers as soon as possible, so we will have to bring technology into the vehicle itself."

That could happen through the car radio or cell phones. Both methods are under examination.

"We're not the only ones looking at this," Miller explained. "The working group VII [Vehicle-Infrastructure Integration] involves all of us trying to look at standards, and how to deploy this type of technology."

VII is a U. S. Department of Transportation initiative that involves automakers; federal, state, and city governments; technology companies; and trade associations.

"We are taking advantage of all reasonable means to prevent crashes and reduce the deaths on our highways," U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said. "Treating roads as an extension of vehicles, using both design and technology, will help prevent crashes and make driving safer."

Building Better Drivers

Today's high-tech new vehicles may have up to 200 sensors that measure everything from engine processes to outside air temperature. "Intelligent vehicle" advocates seek to capitalize on that information and use it to more efficiently and safely manage transportation systems.

"Recently we've begun to explore vehicle-to-roadside and vehicle-to-vehicle communication," a U.S. Federal Highway Administration (FHA) official told National Geographic News. "That's sort of a hot new area that offers potential for a whole new family of services."

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