Safety Experiment: Cars That 'Talk' to Each Other

Dept. of Transportation photo

Will traffic be safer and smoother if vehicles can "talk" to each other? That's the question the Department of Transportation hopes to answer, starting this summer, with an ambitious year-long experiment in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

In August the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration plans to have 2,800 cars, trucks, and buses on the streets of Ann Arbor, augmented with technologies that will alert drivers to road hazards such as sudden stops and vehicles in their blind spots. Partnering with the University of Michigan, DOT distributed the equipment to volunteer residents of the city and some public transportation vehicles.

Speaking at a transportation industry conference today, NHTSA administrator David Strickland said government-run clinics with drivers showed overwhelming support for the technology among those who tried it out.

"The reason why we are so excited about this is, is that this technology, when fully deployed, can address up to 80 percent of crash scenarios involving not-impaired drivers," he said.

The concept isn't new. Americans have had access to systems dealing with many of the same issues in some consumer vehicles for years. But where the NHTSA experiment differs is in its implementation and sheer scale.

For example, many cars use proximity sensors to alert motorists to nearby hazards. But in this case the augmented vehicles will  use a combination of traditional GPS and a wireless broadcasting method functionally similar to Wi-Fi. The DOT calls the concept "Connected Vehicle Technology." The system will allow cars to communicate directly with each other, alerting drivers to potential dangers.

The benefit of the electronics, administration officials said, is it circumvents some handicaps in current technologies and can also provide warnings to drivers earlier than ever.

Strickland called it the "next evolutionary step" in vehicle safety, comparing it to seat belts and antilock brakes.

"It gives the driver a working opportunity to be able to take action and prevent the crash from happening."

ABC News and other media were invited to see the technology in action on a closed course near Washington D.C. In one demonstration, NHTSA drivers showed reporters how the system could detect an oncoming car around a blind corner. In another scenario the system notified its driver of a car that had suddenly stopped in their lane several vehicles ahead, beyond the motorist's view.

NHTSA said the proximity sensors in many of today's vehicles would likely have failed these tests without having direct line-of-sight contact.

NHTSA says Connected Vehicle Technology should also allow commuters and local governments to view traffic information in real time.

Transportation officials say findings from the Ann Arbor experiment will help the federal government decide whether to mandate its implementation in future vehicles to be sold in the United States. But there are privacy concerns, since the technology records cars' travels.  And the systems are only truly effective if there's mass participation - something less likely if drivers are concerned about their privacy.

Eight foreign and domestic car manufacturers have agreed to partner with NHTSA in the development of Connected Vehicle Technology, making sure vehicles sold by "Brand X" can communicate with "Brand Y," but what of the 250 million vehicles already on American roads?

A representative of the Ford Motor Company tells ABC News manufacturers are also developing independent, dedicated units that could be sold to consumers whose vehicles did not natively support Connected Vehicle Technology. In other words: Any used car.

Even so, purchases of the units would likely be voluntary. Consumers may not want to hold their breath waiting for Connected Vehicle Technology to become the norm.

Administration officials say the Ann Arbor experiment is estimated to cost $15 million, with funding split between the federal government and state of Michigan. They hope it will also find uses in maritime and railway applications.