Cars soon may 'talk' to roads, each other
By Chris Woodyard,
Thu Nov 10,
As the Japanese version of a Honda Accord pulls up to a blind intersection, the navigation screen flashes the urgent message "Caution: Oncoming Vehicle!"
A moment later, a motorbike whizzes past, its electronically transmitted warning having potentially saved it from a collision with the car.
The demonstration at Honda's test center outside Tokyo previews what is shaping up as the next phase of automotive safety: vehicles that talk to each other and the highway system itself.
They silently send or receive warnings from other cars in close proximity. Or they pass information back and forth to sensors along the roadway that become part of a real-time database.
They tell of their approach to an intersection, warn about hazards ahead or keep an inattentive driver from running a red light, all with the goal of preventing accidents.
Around the world, major automakers from General Motors to BMW see the idea of a transportation system that can communicate as a major safety breakthrough.
"It does seem like it's straight out of a science-fiction movie," says Robert Strassburger, vice president of vehicle safety for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "But it's happening already."
Seat belts require people to buckle up. Air bags work only after the crash. Only so-called intelligent transportation systems can prevent an accident from happening in the first place. They could be especially valuable in stopping crashes at intersections or when vehicles swerve off the road. Those kinds of accidents accounted for about half of the 42,636 U.S. highways deaths in 2004.
Intelligent transportation also offers a lucrative side benefit: the sharing of information that could ease traffic congestion, which wasted an estimated 2.3 billion gallons of gasoline in 2003, according to a Texas Transportation Institute estimate. Traffic jam data could be gathered from the electronic messages of cars themselves, not just from sensors in roadways.
Excitement revs up
In the U.S., government agencies working on these systems hope to reach a decision by 2008 on the feasibility of developing a nationwide intelligent-transportation system network. If it gets the nod, the first working system could be in place by 2011, says Neil Schuster, CEO of the ITS America, a group devoted to the advancement of intelligent transportation systems.
On Tuesday, Motorola announced at ITS America's convention in San Francisco that it signed its first contract with the Michigan Department of Transportation to deploy a test system that connects vehicles to the roadside and to one another. Trials have started in the Detroit suburb of Southfield.
"We are picking a lot of the technological concepts on the drawing board now to put them into test conditions," says Motorola spokeswoman Sue Frederick.
Japanese automaker Nissan says it expects up to 10,000 motorists to participate in a test of an intelligent-transportation system starting next year in a region south of Tokyo.
Cars are already being built with many of the devices that can be adapted to make them chatty. For instance, luxury cars can come equipped with more than two dozen computers that keep track of everything from the outside temperature to whether the headlights are on.
When Greg Larson, manager of the California Department of Transportation's intelligent-vehicle program, asked automakers what information cars track by computer nowadays, he says he received a list three pages long.
If that information can be communicated to other vehicles, motorists will have a more complete picture of road conditions.
"If you had cars talking to each other, it would tell people three, four or five cars back" that traffic has stopped ahead, says John Mendel, a senior vice president in Honda's American operation.
Short-distance wireless systems, which would likely be at the heart of an intelligent-transportation network, are also starting to show up. They are used by some toll road and bridge operators so that drivers can roll through toll booths without stopping to pay. Transmitters in cars wirelessly record the vehicles' passage so drivers can be billed by mail.
GM, for its part, thinks it can develop vehicle-to-vehicle systems faster than its competitors because 4 million of its cars already sport the OnStar communications system, which puts drivers in touch with an operator at the push of a button. GM is demonstrating a car this week that can warn its driver when other cars are in its blind spot. It also can automatically illuminate the brake lamps to warn tailgaters.
Experts say that's just the start. Cars could detect other vehicles not heeding a red light. If a car slips on ice, intelligent systems could not only inform other drivers but send a notice through the receivers alongside the highways to road crews that salt or sand is needed. Such systems could even be programmed to stop cars before an accident occurs - without driver involvement.
"One of these days, you could have cars that refuse to crash or refuse to run off the road," says Randy Iwasaki, chief deputy director of California's Transportation Department.
Reaching that goal will require working out a few thorny issues still in the program's path:
•Compatibility. Motorola is trying figure out the best technology to send messages. In demonstrations this week, the company is showing how information can be passed in different ways. For instance, one method would allow cars to stay in touch with the network longer as they drive but another holds the promise of less radio interference.
Navteq, a private firm that provides mapping data for automotive navigation systems, is involved in trials using a combination of maps and GPS.
•Privacy. If a car can communicate with stations along its path, it's divulging its driver's travel patterns. It could raise issues of whether government could violate privacy, because it would have a much easier time tracking individual cars. There's also concern about whether hackers could tamper with or draw personal data from the system.
•Control. The biggest gains in an intelligent system come from crash prevention. But how far should automakers go in taking control of a car? Even though cars could be brought to a full stop automatically if a hazard is detected, "We don't intend to take control of the car away from the driver," says Tom Baloga, general manager of safety for BMW North America.
Likewise, Nissan fears drivers could become complacent if they believe their cars will automatically extract them from danger. "We don't want people to be lazy," says Shotaro Ogawa, assistant manager of Nissan's product and technology group. "We don't want to make anything automatic."
Japan takes the lead
Intelligent systems undergo a major test next year in Japan's Kanagawa Prefecture, the region where the big industrial city of Yokohama is situated.
Working with automakers, the government will install a series of posts around the area that communicate with electronic transponders on cars, Ogawa says.
The transponders are used to advise drivers of oncoming traffic at intersections and warn them to slow down when they enter school zones. The real-time system will provide traffic jam data at a level of detail that never could be achieved before, Ogawa says.
Other Japanese automakers are intent on making their intelligent-transportation systems work as well.
At Honda's test facility, technicians showed not only how the transponders can prevent crashes at blind intersections, but also how they can warn of a stopped car ahead, to prevent rear-end accidents.
Honda also is looking at ideas such as seats that could monitor a driver's pulse rate in an accident and relay the information via the transponder to rescuers, says executive chief engineer Akihiro Kubo.
Ideas like that may seem far-fetched, but those in the industry say just wait.
"We are now at the dawn of a new era of auto electronics - better, safer, more fun to drive," says Honda spokesman Kurt Antonius. "All these systems are coming into play and will be integrated with each other."
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