Imagine traffic one day behaving like dense schools of fish, which turn and maneuver in a synchronized flash of color without collisions, confusion, or delays. Fish have a natural system of sensors that read heat and electric fields emanating from each animal.
Now cars can do on roads what fish do in water as automobile engineers develop advanced sensor and transmitting systems that use WiFi signals and GPS to broadcast a vehicle’s precise location to other cars in order to avoid crashes. The technology has been available in aircraft for years, primarily for inanimate objects, like mountains ("pull up, pull up). Avoiding moving objects is another challenge. NASA and the Air Force are working on a crash avoidance system for fighter jets, and so are the major car companies.
These same systems integrated into urban “smart transportation grids” can also help regulate traffic, control traffic lights, and reduce carbon emissions by reducing idle time at stop lights and in traffic jams.
“Intelligent Automobile” technology could prevent millions of future accidents, according to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report issued last year, saving not only lives and injuries but a hefty chunk of the almost $170 billion that crashes cost each year in the U.S.
“Excluding drivers impaired by alcohol or drowsiness, these systems potentially address 81 percent of all light-vehicle crashes involving unimpaired drivers,” claims the NHTSA report, which arrived at this number by running several scenarios of typical crashes and how intelligent auto tech might react to preventing them. Total crashes numbered 5.5 million in 2009, with an estimated 10 million additional bumps and collisions going unreported.
Next-gen cars with a brain could also save money on gas by reducing idling during traffic jams. Commuters in San Francisco, for instance, spend an extra $1,112 a year on extra fuel burned in stop and go traffic. Nationally this sort of driving wastes 3.9 billion gallons of fuel a year.
Last week in San Francisco, one of the first ever prototypes of “intelligent car” technology rolled into town with the aplomb of an old-fashioned auto show as Ford ran a specially outfitted Explorer through its high-IQ paces in a parking lot at AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team.
In the demo the Explorer acted like a giant cell phone emitting and receiving signals – broadcasting its exact location, speed, and acceleration, among other data points - as its driver came up on a stopped car, tried to pass into a dangerous lane, and used its sensors to search for cars on the other side of a truck. These three scenarios are among those that top the list of why people have accidents.
The system provides passive warnings to drivers, including buzzers and small indicator lights that flash red on the dashboard.
The technology demonstrated at AT&T Park is expected to start appearing as early as the 2015 model year, but it will take years to be broadly adopted. Owners of older cars will have the option of buying retrofitting packages that will likely be sold at stores like Best Buy or in your local car repair shop.
Ford executive Mike Shulman, Technical Leader of the company’s Active Safety Research and Advanced Engineering program, told reporters in San Francisco that he expects the government to one day require these systems in all cars, much like the seat belt was phased in and is now required.
Shulman declined to say how much the new systems will cost to manufacture and install, or how they will be priced for car buyers, but he did say the tech will appear first on low-cost cars such as the compact Ford Fiesta. “We want to make this technology available for younger people, who are our customers for the future.”
Ford, Toyota, Volvo, Mercedes Benz and other manufacturers are already moving aggressively to add earlier versions of sensors and other safety features into their most recent models. These include a semi-automated system that helps a driver parallel park and radar systems that can warn a driver of an object or a car that gets too close. None of these systems, however, broadcast data like speed, location, and acceleration, nor can they communicate with other cars and traffic systems to optimize safety, fuel use, and routing.
Ford is part of an industry and government consortium that has been working on next generation intellicar technology since 2002, with money provided by automakers and by a $100 million allocation for R&D from the federal government.
Details remain to be worked out, including standards that will insure all cars will be able to talk to each other in the same language of data streams and information. Shulman also says that issues of security and privacy are being worked out. “We don’t want these systems abused by people to cause accidents,” he said, or for tracking people, or for giving out speeding tickets.
Shulman says that Ford and several other car manufacturers will deploy a fleet of 1500 intellicars as a proof of concept test in a still unnamed city in 2012. Ronald Medford, deputy administrator of NHTSA, said in a recent speech that his agency should have regulations in place for intellicars the following year, in 2013.
This will allow companies to start developing their own versions of the technology to be sold to customers. “We will compete in offering the best systems with easy to use warnings and readouts and other applications,” said Shulman.
Without knowing the ultimate costs of deploying the technology or what Ford and other automakers will charge for their new intellicars come 2015 or so, it’s difficult to pinpoint the potential payoff for either individual consumers or for society. However, if the numbers being offered up by the NHTSA and others are accurate, one can speculate that the gas savings alone for an individual car owner who is able to avoid idling in traffic jams could be over $1000 a year.
Even if America achieves only half of the projected 81 percent prevention rate for collisions, that could save north of $50 billion in costs brought on by accidents – in addition to the millions of Americans who would avoid injury and the thousands who would not be killed. Government and industry investments in these new technologies have clear benefits, though we have yet to know how it will impact the auto industry’s bottom line.
One aspect of the intellicar tech that apparently has not been studied is its impact on industries and workers in the auto insurance and repair field. A dramatic reduction in accidents could also impact the need for hospital emergency rooms and personnel, and for police and EMT units who now spend a great deal of time dealing with auto crashes.
Nor is the current generation of intellicars the final word in this burgeoning auto-tech. Companies including Google and Mercedez-Benz are already developing prototypes of driverless cars – vehicles that will control everything from the accelerator and brake to how to safely and efficiently get someplace.