'Talking' car test designed to cut down on crashes, traffic

John Egan

In a yearlong test aimed at preventing crashes and reducing traffic congestion, nearly 3,000 "talking" cars, trucks and buses on Tuesday took to the streets of Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood joined elected officials, industry leaders and community leaders on the University of Michigan campus to kick off the project.

At the heart of the test is technology that warns drivers about roadway hazards. Based on the Ann Arbor tryout, the federal government may require automakers to install this technology in new cars.

“Today is a big moment for automotive safety,” LaHood told the crowd. “This cutting-edge technology offers real promise for improving both the safety and efficiency of our roads. That is a winning combination for drivers across America.”

The 2,800 vehicles are equipped with wireless vehicle-to-vehicle communication devices as well as devices that let vehicles "talk" to traffic lights and road signs. The University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute is overseeing the project.

The test vehicles will send electronic messages, receive messages from other equipped vehicles and translate the data into warnings about hazardous traffic situations, such as a car changing lanes in another driver's blind spot. Through vehicle communication with traffic lights and road signs, drivers may be able to decrease the amount of time they spend in traffic.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the technology could help drivers avoid or reduce the severity of four of every five car crashes that don't involve motorists who are impaired by alcohol or drugs.

“Vehicle-to-vehicle communication has the potential to be the ultimate game-changer in roadway safety – but we need to understand how to apply the technology in an effective way in the real world,” said David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

These automakers are participating in the project: Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen.

“People talk about intelligent vehicles, or cars talking to each other, like it’s something out of 'The Jetsons,'” Mike Shulman, technical leader for Ford's Active Safety Research and Innovation unit, says in a company news release. “But it shouldn’t sound like science fiction. Mostly, the cars will be sending messages to each other, and people won’t even know about it except on the rare occasions when they need a warning or help understanding what’s going on around their vehicle.”

Crash-avoidance technology like the type being tested in Ann Arbor eventually could lead to lower car insurance rates. But the technology won't be widely available anytime soon.

Hariharan Krishnan, GM's research-and-development technical fellow for perception and vehicle control systems, says the Ann Arbor experiment will help the automaker set a timetable for introducing vehicle-to-vehicle technology in its cars "in the second half of this decade."

"It will take approximately another five years of market penetration for customers to truly benefit from the technology," Krishnan says in a GM news release.

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