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Study To Test ‘Talking’ Cars That Would Warn Drivers Of Unseen Dangers

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
August 21, 2012

Experts predict that our cars will one day routinely “talk” to one another with wireless communication devices, possibly preventing huge numbers of traffic accidents.

On Tuesday, the largest test ever of one connected car technology launched in Ann Arbor, Mich. The Emergency Electronic Brake Lights system will test how connected vehicles could respond to a common danger — sudden braking.

Imagine you’re driving along at about 35 to 40 mph with several cars ahead of you. Now imagine that the driver in the lead car turns a corner and suddenly hits the brakes.

“Not only is our view of that sudden braking impeded by the traffic between us, [but] possibly the traffic between us doesn’t realize that that car has slammed on its brakes as well,” says Melissa Donia, who is working with the Department of Transportation on the study.

Normally, that might make you the latest victim of a multiple car pileup. The cars in the study, however, are equipped with radio transmitters and receivers, audio, visual and tactile warnings.

Ten times a second, the cars transmit their location, speed and direction. So when the car in front randomly slams on the brakes, the driver is warned of “hard braking ahead” and has extra seconds to respond.

Soon, nearly 3,000 Ann Arbor motorists will have some version of the devices on their cars. For a year, they’ll travel their usual ways, occasionally crossing paths.

The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) will study how the technology works in real life. UMTRI Director Peter Sweatman thinks the potential to save lives is huge.

“Motor vehicle injuries and fatalities are the No. 1 public health problem in this country; I don’t think people realize that,” Sweatman says. “So between the ages of 1 and 35, that’s the No. 1 cause of death.”

Most of those accidents are caused by human error.

The technology is not without its risks. Many people are already distracted when they drive, and that could get worse if people become complacent about the need to watch the road.

There’s also the philosophical objection, because now it is the car telling the driver what to do.

“Isn’t that kind of un-American?” says Car and Driver magazine editor-in-chief Eddie Alterman. “I mean what would Teddy Roosevelt say about this? What happened to the rugged individualist?”

Alterman says this is all too “Big Brother” for his taste, but his fears weren’t widely shared among people who tried out connected cars on closed courses in earlier tests.

This study does have its limits and it is still early in the process. It could be decades before a truly connected vehicle future arrives. Even when it does, however, it might never replace the hands-down, best life-saving device invented so far: the seat belt. [Copyright 2012 Michigan Radio]

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