If you want to save American consumers some gasoline, invent something that will prevent cars from crashing into each other. According to Texas Transportation Institute's (TTI) 2010 Urban Mobility Report, traffic congestion wastes nearly 3.9 billion gallons of fuel annually. That costs the average commuter an additional 49 hours spent sitting in traffic, and the extra 39 gallons of gas (worth $1,112) per driver that idle time requires. Leading factors in traffic delays are caused by accidents, breakdowns and road debris, TTI says, so if you get rid of accidents and you communicate more rapidly in the event of vehicle breakdown, you will save the country billions of gallons of gas. The good news is that the industry is working on the problem, and one of the solutions is to enable cars to communicate with one another while they are sharing the road.
We recently had the opportunity to participate in an event sponsored by Ford Motor Company that demonstrated how intelligent vehicles that wirelessly talk to each other could be effective in reducing crashes. Ford built functioning prototypes of intelligent vehicles and took the show on the road to exhibit the value of the technology. In cars so equipped, it was immediately obvious that the technology could have far-reaching benefits, and safety experts agree. An October 2010 report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said the potential safety payback of vehicle-to-vehicle communication could help in as many as 4.3 million police-reported light-vehicle crashes annually. That's approximately 81 percent of all light-vehicle crashes involving unimpaired drivers. You can see why Ford is so gung ho about the future of intelligent vehicles.
"Intelligent vehicles are the next frontier of collision avoidance innovations that could revolutionize the driving experience and hold the potential of helping reduce many crashes," says Sue Cischke, Ford group vice president of sustainability, environment and safety engineering.
Ford's vehicle communications technology allows vehicles to talk wirelessly with one another using advanced Wi-Fi signals for dedicated short-range communications on a secured channel allocated by the Federal Communications Commission. Unlike radar-based collision-avoidance features, which identify hazards within a direct line of sight, the Wi-Fi-based radio system allows full-range, 360-degree detection of potentially dangerous situations, even when a driver's vision of the other vehicle(s) is obstructed. Cars that talk to the other cars can sense their presence around a curve, over a hill or behind a wall, even when you can't see them from the driver's seat.
Because of this critical aspect of the intelligent cars system, a driver could be alerted if her vehicle is on path to collide with another vehicle at an intersection, when a vehicle ahead stops or slows suddenly, or when traffic changes on a busy highway. The systems could also warn drivers if there is a risk of collision when changing lanes or approaching a stationary or parked vehicle, or if another driver loses control.
Preventing deaths and injuries is, of course, the greatest benefit of the system, but the other big plus is the fuel- and time-saving. By reducing crashes, intelligent vehicles could ease traffic delays. A network of intelligent vehicles and infrastructure could process real-time traffic and road information to allow drivers to choose less congested routes.
"We are not far from the day when vehicles will operate like mobile devices with four wheels, constantly exchanging information and communicating with our environment to do things such as shorten commute times, improve fuel economy and generally help us more easily navigate life on the road," says Paul Mascarenas, vice president and chief technical officer of of Ford Research and Innovation. "A smart network of intelligent vehicles has the potential to benefit drivers in many ways."
Tom Ripleyis a Driving Today contributing editor who writes about the auto industry, technical innovation and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.
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