The automobile of the future will communicate with traffic lights, stop signs and other cars. A (slightly alarmed) driver takes one for a spin.
Author Julie Halpert Illustration Harry Campbell
I’M DRIVING DOWN HIGHWAY I-94 in Michigan, trying to get as close to the car in front of me as I possibly can. My every instinct screams Slow down! Instead, I hit the gas. Seconds from a collision, a bright red line lights up on my windshield and a loud chime sounds, warning me to hit my brakes. Terrifying though it is, this is my real-world introduction to cars that pay attention, even when you don’t.
Some cars already communicate with drivers, telling you if someone is lingering in your blind spot, or automatically slowing down if you’re getting too close to the car in front of you. But Ford is part of a consortium of automakers that is upping the ante. In collaboration with Mercedes, GM, Toyota, Volkswagen and others, it’s developing what is known as “vehicle-to-vehicle” and “vehicle- to-infrastructure” communication, in which cars talk to each other and to traffic signals to anticipate dangerous situations. And they’re getting a little help from the Department of Transportation, which contributed about $11.5 million to the effort in 2010.
With this technology, messages are sent wirelessly from one car to another and from cars to traffic signals using dedicated short-range radios that can see 360 degrees around the car. Over time, radios will likewise be installed in traffic signal equipment, along with dedicated short-range communication antennas that will provide GPS information to cars so they can better navigate the road.
I’m able to see all this in action in an Escape Hybrid at Ford’s product development campus. Shawn Brovold, a young product design engineer, is piloting a Ford Flex. First, I drive toward an intersection to try out the “stop sign violation warning.” As I approach the sign without slowing down, lights flash on my windshield, and a female voice calmly says “Stop sign.” Approaching the next intersection, I speed up, but so does Brovold in his Flex, which is coming at me from the left. Moments before a collision, another warning tells me to brake. I do what it tells me.
Out on the highway, we test a more advanced Wi-Fi-enabled blind spot warning system. While current blind spot technologies tell you when a car is already in your blind spot, the next generation can tell you when a car is going to be in your blind spot. When I try to make a lane change with the Flex gaining on my right, an orange icon appears in my right-hand mirror telling me to stay put. Brovold then pulls two cars ahead of me and hits his brakes. I immediately get a warning to slow down, demonstrating the Escape’s ability to see through obstacles in the car’s path.
The U.S. Department of Transportation plans to issue a ruling by 2013 on whether the program holds enough promise to move forward. If it green-lights the technology, the soonest it would appear in cars in a significant way would be 2018. The next step after that—autonomous, Jetsons-style cars— is even farther off. This leaves us plenty of time to get used to the unsettling idea of cars, once submissive, doing the driving for us.
Automotive journalist JULIE HALPERT has thus far avoided any serious collisions— without help from her car.