How About a Little Air Bag Chat? Ford Seeks to Make Cars That Talk to Each Other

2/11/11Follow @xconomy

Drivers today like to gab and text on their phones while they are on the move. So I guess it makes sense that their cars should also talk to one another.

But unlike distracted drivers, Ford hopes vehicle-to-vehicle communication will prevent accidents, not cause them.

Ford, based in Dearborn, MI, is accelerating research into “intelligent” vehicles, cars and trucks that can wirelessly transmit data between each other, such as location, speed, proximity, and brake status. Guided by a vast array of sensors and cameras, the system can alert drivers to nearby accidents, or signal if they risk colliding with another vehicle at an intersection.

“It’s like having a 360 degree pair of eyes,” says Mike Shulman, technical leader for Ford Research and Advanced Engineering.

What began as an interesting R&D project for Ford has morphed into a company-wide effort to make smart cars a fixture on roads and highways by 2016. (Ford said it doubled its investment on intelligent vehicles but did not disclose specific figures.) The company is contributing two prototypes to government-sponsored driving clinics scheduled for this summer.

“We kind of like to get it out as soon as we can,” Shulman says.

Ford’s work is only one part of an ambitious effort spearheaded by the U.S. Department of Transportation called IntelliDrive.

The goal is to develop a common communications platform for all vehicles, regardless of maker, to talk to each other, using 3G and 4G broadband technologies found in smart phones. IntelliDrive also envisions building infrastructure across the country that allows cars to “communicate” with roads, highways, and bridges, exchanging information on traffic patterns, road conditions, and weather.

“IntelliDrive will help drivers bypass congestion, and it will reduce crashes by providing advanced safety warnings,” according to a report by the Center for Automotive Research (CAR), a non-profit research group based in Ann Arbor, MI. “It will even be able to take over the vehicle when there is not enough time for the driver to react.”

The system “will also help us manage traffic, alerting drivers to upcoming congestion, advising them of alternative routes, and altering the timing of traffic signals to improve traffic flow,” the report said. “It can even help owners with vehicle maintenance by reporting pending problems, keeping small repairs from becoming larger and more expensive.”

In the past, automakers focused on “passive safety,” such as crush zones, anti-lock brakes, and air bags. But technological advances have pushed car manufacturers to explore “active safety” features such as onboard cameras, GPS, and radar.

In 2002, the Federal Communications Commission dedicated wireless spectrum (75 MHz, 5.9 GHz) to vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-road communications.

Next year, Ford will field test eight different kinds of Wi-Fi-enabled smart cars. Through a series of LED lights, beeps, and icons, the system will warn drivers if another car has entered their blind spot or if they are driving too close to another vehicle. By calculating the speed and direction of two cars, the system could alert the drivers of a potential crash at an intersection.

The relatively low cost of Wi-FI makes smart cars a reality and not a pipe dream, Shulman says. While all cars will eventually carry the system, automakers can compete on how to present the information to the driver and add extra features like reserving a parking spot on the go.

Eventually, the technology could lead to cars that drive themselves, Shulman says. Google is already testing such a car.

Nevertheless, significant challenges lie ahead. Car makers need to develop technical standards that can securely and accurately transmit information between different types of vehicles. Also, the current wireless range for smart cars is just 300 meters. During traffic jams, the information transmitted by smart cars might clog up the system.

Shulman also thinks some consumers will raise concerns over privacy.

With its auto expertise and already considerable investment into intelligent vehicles, Michigan could reap the benefits of such technology, experts say.

The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is exploring the idea of creating an incubator for companies to develop IntelliDrive technologies.

MDOT is also partnering with the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Michigan Technological University to offer research grants that encourage the creation of remote sensors that can monitor and collect information on infrastructure like bridges. Stress-measuring sensors and wireless broadband networks have already been tested on the Mackinac Bridge and the Cut River Bridge in the Upper Peninsula.

“As the home of the nation’s automotive industry, Michigan is a logical choice to take on the leadership role…and has much to gain from it,” the CAR report said.

“In this way, the state can make its own vision of IntelliDrive become a reality, instead of letting others define it,” the report said. “Leadership also promises economic development benefits, because it will bring jobs and other investment into the state as the IntelliDrive industry takes root and grows in Michigan.”


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