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Tech Talk: Crash-proof cars coming soon?

Vehicles communicate wirelessly to help predict imminent collisions and warn drivers to take action. Soon, the cars may take action automatically.

Published September 7, 2012

Several years ago, Larry Burns, then vice-president of research for General Motors, told me it will be possible to totally prevent cars from colliding with each other by 2020.

At the time, the idea seemed like a pipe-dream. But now, not so much.

The realization of that dream took a big step forward a couple weeks ago, with the launch of a year-long “smart-car” test program involving nearly 3,000 vehicles, co-ordinated by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI).

With the ungainly title of Safety Pilot Model Deployment, the test program is part of a $22-million (U.S.) partnership between the institute and the U.S. Department of Transportation, supported by several auto-industry players.

Eight automakers — Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen — have all contributed vehicles to the program.

Billed as “the largest connected-vehicle, street-level pilot project ever conducted,” its purpose is simple: to see how well automatic wireless communication among vehicles works in the real world.

Ann Arbor residents will drive these vehicles for a year, while researchers collect and analyze data to assess the systems’ effectiveness.

The vehicles, which include passenger cars, commercial trucks and transit buses, are fitted with wireless devices that enable both V2V (Vehicle-to-Vehicle) and V2I (Vehicle-to-Infrastructure) communication.

Stated simply, the vehicles can talk to each other, as well as to traffic lights and other road signals at intersections, curves and highway sites throughout a defined test area in Ann Arbor, Mich., where UMTRI is located.

Data will include such things as vehicle position, speed and direction. The V2I shares information about traffic signals, road attributes and surface conditions from 29 roadside transponders installed along about 120 km of Ann Arbor roadways.

Most of that communication will be invisible to the drivers.

But in the event of a potential crash — a vehicle unexpectedly braking, a sudden lane change or merging traffic, for example — some drivers will be given a visual or audible warning. (Although all vehicles can talk to each other, only some are equipped with warning systems).

Given that several modern cars include technologies such as active cruise control and emergency stopping, it’s technically possible to have at least some of them take over partial control in the event of an emergency.

But this trial doesn’t go that far. It focuses on being able to identify potential problems and warn the drivers accordingly. That’s a big first step.

Beyond safety implications, V2V and V2I also have the potential to improve traffic flow, by identifying traffic congestion and offering alternative routes.

“This is a game-changer for transportation,” says program manager Jim Sayer, an associate research scientist at the institute.

Connected vehicle technology has the ability to prevent as much as 80 per cent of all crashes involving unimpaired drivers, and to greatly reduce carbon emissions, according to UMTRI director, Peter Sweatman.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is equally enthusiastic. “This is a big moment for automotive safety,” he says. “This cutting-edge technology offers real promise for improving both the safety and efficiency of our roads.”

Although the Michigan test is the largest of its type, it’s not the only one. A 120-vehicle fleet is being used to test 20 experimental driver assistance technologies in Germany, as part of a four-year research project called Safe Intelligent Mobility.

At the conclusion of the Michigan test, the U.S. Department of Transportation will consider rulemaking related to these technologies.

It is important to establish global standards and security frameworks, so all vehicles from all makers will be able to communicate with each other.

It will be at least six to eight years before the systems could be implemented, according to Mike Shulman, technical leader of Ford’s research and advanced engineering.

But it will take another five years on the market for drivers to truly benefit from the technology, says Hariharan Krishnan, a GM researcher.

Larry Burns’ prediction may not be that far off after all.

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