Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

The future of America's traffic safety will include talking cars

November 17, 2011 - 04:19 PM
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These vehicles are communicating with each other. (Photo: John Hendel)

Cars swerved across the RFK Stadium parking lot, full of orange and green traffic safety cones under a cloudy sky today in Washington, D.C. These vehicles glided across the black concrete, wet from the morning's rain, and I braced myself in the passenger seat as our Volkswagen pulled to a sharp stop. A visual warning had begun flashing on the dashboard ("Vehicle Left," it read, "Braking!") and a sound beeped. We had pulled up to an artificial intersection on the lot, with the left side blocked from view. Another car race by us — and in a real life situation, potentially would have struck us and sent our VW crashing across the RFK lot in a million pieces.

Rick Yersak, the friendly pro driver at the wheel, had warned me this part of the demonstration would be more of a jolt than others. But despite the fact that he and bearded VW senior engineer Andrew Cunningham in the backseat were demonstrating over and over on the lot how I wasn't dying in a potential traffic accident, the experience was still as scary as it was exhilarating. "It's kind of like a ballet," Yersak told me with a grin, gesturing to the other cars on the road who simulated traffic dangers with him. "We rarely use the radios."

These truly were professionals, and the technology on display has the potential to revolutionize how our vehicles help us stay safe. Because out here at RFK Stadium, about two dozens cars drove around the lot talking to each other. The professional drivers had trained with the new technology since early summer, and the U.S. government will decide whether to mandate its implementation as soon as 2013.

Wireless vehicle-to-vehicle communication may well be the future of traffic safety, and the U.S. Department of Transportation has collaborated with eight auto manufacturers to bring the technology to the first powerful phase of a pilot. Each company had brought three of the smart cars to the lot today to showcase just what they can do. Why does it matter that cars can sense and talk with one another? The vehicles react to surroundings and specifically detect other similarly equipped vehicles on the road ... and detects if there's a problem. If a car is suddenly stops up ahead, brake signals flash on, even if the braking car is out of sight and two or three cars ahead; the technology can warn drivers to slow down to prevent a forward-vehicle collision; side lights will flash if a driver is about to turn when another car is in his or her blind spot; and the technology with audibly assist drivers making a left turn, speaking "Caution! Oncoming vehicle" if the way is not clear. No machine ever takes the wheel; these are simply wake-up calls for drivers who sometimes can't even see the dangers at hand. The goal is to prevent possible accidents in the early stages. Cunningham told me that these WiFi-like dedicated short-range communications signals could reliably travel up to about 300 meters and without likely interference from obstacles. These vehicles are, quite simply, better able to sense other vehicles and potentially even infrastructure on the road and warn the driver of dangers through pointed, intelligent sounds and visuals.

I saw about six of traffic safety innovations made possible by the connected-vehicle tech today firsthand, braving the near collisions in the name of journalism. Here's a video the U.S. transportation department offered to understand the different ways vehicle-to-vehicle enhancements will help make our roads a safer place:

"We'll make a decision by 2013," said National Highway Traffic Safety Administration deputy administrator Ron Medford at the site today. "What's it going to cost to install the technology? We're still waiting on that." The NHTSA is also currently trying to estimate how many lives the vehicle-to-vehicle wireless equipment might save.

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Ron Medford, left. (Photo: John Hendel)

The government's decision whether or not to mandate the technology will depend in large part on how the pilot goes, from the driver acceptance clinics happening in Minnesota, Florida, Virginia, California, and Texas (a phase expected to conclude this January) to the year-long model deployment of approximately 3,000 vehicles in Ann Arbor, Michigan (from summer of 2012 to summer of 2013). Some research on the project already strikes me as compelling. One Department of Transportation study noted that this connected-vehicle technology would help in four out of five car crashes involving unimpaired drivers.

As I walked around the RFK parking lot and examined the different videos and displays of today's demonstration, what amazed me was the sheer range of this collaboration. The people gathered today, which included a couple other members of the media as well as industry and government officials with a stake in the project, had come from all over. Yersak, the pro driver who guided my test Volkswagen, lives in Pennsylvania. Cunningham, as with others present, lives in Detroit. The eight auto manufacturers partnering with the government are Ford, General Motors, Honda R&D Americas, Hyundai-Kia America Technical Center, Mercedes-Benz Research and Development North America, Nissan Technical Center North America, Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America, and Volkswagen. A lot of research and brain power and investment dollars have gone into connected-vehicle innovation — and with good reason, if the government may mandate its integration into all vehicles come 2013.

That decision, of course, could go either way depending on the pilot and the public's reaction.

Medford acknowledged the privacy concerns that some people may have about adding these cautionary signals to their cars and the notion that the road's vehicles communicate with one another. Other countries have experienced similar reactions to similar technologies — Brazil, for instance, took a long time to adjust to the idea of government-mandated GPS installed for security reasons in recent years. The auto insurance industry is "aware of the work," the official told reporters, and he and the department remain "optimistic" about the possibility of insurance companies covering some of the cost associated with implementing the technology on a wider scale.

And with an innovation such as connected vehicles, scale truly is key. A wider scale of us will drive the traffic safety. If the U.S. government doesn't mandate the technology, it may still have some use and people may purchase varying levels of the warning equipment but the effect won't be quite the same. If the government mandates it and more and more cars on the road have these sensors installed, then the entire roadways of America will begin talking with one another. A ripple effect happens when every car can talk with each other. A car screeches on its brakes, which would send a signal to the next car behind it and then the one behind that and then to the cars at a nearby intersection that are suddenly fraught with what would have potentially been a pile-up. Caution would inevitably grow as our cars learn to warn us. I wonder at other potential applications. The U.S. Department of Transportation says it can install these sensors in infrastructure like schools, too. But what about, say, bike lanes? In any case, I'm curious to learn more about the technology. It's a far cry from robot drivers but a potential boon for safety. Let's see how the next steps go. These sensitive driver alerts may be a necessary solution for the increasingly recognized danger of distracted driving. 

But assuming all goes perfectly, when might America's roads see this technology on a wide scale? When might that magic moment of infectious caution spark? Cunningham, the Volkswagen engineer, says his best guess is by around 2018. The future seems closer and closer every minute.

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(Photo: John Hendel)
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