WASHINGTON (AP) — As a safety demonstration, it was a heart-stopper: A Ford Taurus was seconds away from cruising through an intersection when suddenly a row of red lights pulsed on the lower windshield and a warning blared that another car was approaching fast on the cross street.
Braking quickly, the driver stopped just as the second car, previously unseen behind a large parked truck, barreled through a red light and across the Ford's path.
The display at a recent transportation conference was a peek into the future of automotive safety: cars that to talk to each other and warn drivers of impending collisions. Later this summer, the government is launching a yearlong, real-world test involving nearly 3,000 cars, trucks and buses using volunteer drivers in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The vehicles will be equipped to continuously communicate over wireless networks, exchanging information on location, direction and speed 10 times a second with other similarly equipped cars within about 1,000 feet. A computer analyzes the information and issues danger warnings to drivers, often before they can see the other vehicle.
On roadways today, the Taurus in the demonstration likely would have been "T-boned" — slammed in the side by the other car. There were more than 7,800 fatal intersection accidents on U.S. roadways in 2010.
Called vehicle-to-vehicle communication, or V2V, more advanced versions of the systems can take control of a car to prevent an accident by applying brakes when the driver reacts too slowly to a warning.
V2V "is our next evolutionary step ... to make sure the crash never happens in the first place, which is, frankly, the best safety scenario we can all hope for," said David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
V2V technology holds the potential to help in most crashes that aren't alcohol or drug related, Strickland said. But a lot will depend on how drivers respond to the warnings, and that's one reason for the Ann Arbor test. Overall, more than 32,000 people were killed in traffic accidents last year.
In addition to warning of cars running red lights or stop signs, "connected cars" can let drivers know if they don't have time to make a left turn because of oncoming traffic. When driving on a two-lane road, the systems warn when passing is unsafe because of oncoming cars — even vehicles around a curve that the driver can't see yet.
In a line of heavy traffic, the systems issue an alert if a car several vehicles ahead brakes hard even before the vehicle directly in front brakes. And the systems alert drivers when they're at risk of rear-ending a slower-moving car.
It's also possible for connected cars to exchange information with traffic lights, signs and roadways if states and communities decide to equip their transportation infrastructure with similar technology. The information would be relayed to traffic management centers, tipping them off to congestion, accidents or obstructions. If cars are reported to be swerving in one spot on a roadway, for example, that could indicate a large pothole or obstruction. The constant stream of vehicle-to-infrastructure, or V2I, information could give traffic managers a better picture of traffic flows than they have today, enabling better timing of traffic signals to keep cars moving, for example. Correspondingly, cars could receive warnings on traffic tie-ups ahead and rerouting directions.
NHTSA has been working on the technology for the past decade along with eight automakers: Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai-Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen.
"We think this is really the future of transportation safety, and it's going to make a huge difference in the way we live our lives," said Scott Belcher, president of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, which promotes technology solutions to transportation problems.
The technology is already available, said Rob Strassburger, vice president for safety of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. He said what's needed is for the government to set standards so that all automakers use compatible technology.
Since V2V relies on wireless technology, ensuring that the safety systems are reliable and can't be hacked is another concern, NHTSA officials said.
The safety benefits of V2V won't be fully realized until there is a critical mass of cars on the road that can talk to each other, and just where that point lies isn't known. By the time the government sets standards and automakers are able to respond, it may be 10 years before the technology is widely available on new cars. It takes about 30 years for a new technology to work its way into the entire population of cars.
Creating consumer demand for the technology could speed up its introduction, Strassburger said. There's already demand for information on traffic tie-ups and rerouting that drivers can download to their smartphones, he said.
Automakers dislike government mandates requiring them to add technology to cars, but that's probably what's needed, said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer group.
"If you have the technology, and the price has gone down so much, use it," he said. "You aren't going to get it into the marketplace as fast as you could and save as many lives as you could unless you mandate it."
Some of the safety technologies for V2V are already available in cars, although they tend to be offered primarily on higher-end models. Lane departure systems, for example, warn drivers when their vehicle unintentionally wanders from its lane, and some can automatically steer the car back. Blind spot systems warn drivers of vehicles in adjacent lanes, and some can also steer away from hazards. Forward collision warning systems alert drivers to impending crashes, and some can automatically brake if the driver doesn't respond. Adaptive cruise control automatically adjusts vehicle speed to maintain a set distance from the car ahead in the same lane. Adaptive headlights change their aim in conjunction with the steering wheel. Parking sensors and rear-mounted cameras help a driver parallel park without scraping paint, bumping fenders or hitting pedestrians.
A key difference is that most of the current technologies rely on radar or laser sensors to "see" other nearby vehicles. They can't warn drivers about cars they can't see, such as the car that ran the red light in the intersection demonstration, or an oncoming car around a curve in the road.
Together, the currently available technologies and the future V2V systems may effectively form a kind of autopilot for the road. Said Strassburger: "The long-term trajectory for these technologies is the vehicle that drives itself — the driverless car."
Follow Joan Lowy at http://www.twitter.com/AP_Joan_Lowy
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration http://www.nhtsa.gov
Google's Self-Driving Car
Google has transformed <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/03/google-self-driving-car-demo_n_831175.html" target="_hplink">ordinary Toyota Priuses</a> into hands-free vehicles, each equipped with a rotating camera, sensors and more. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/03/google-self-driving-car-demo_n_831175.html" target="_hplink">According to the AP</a>, the four-wheeled fleet "can steer, stop and start without a human driver." These so-called self-driving cars handle themselves so well that one has even been used to take a blind man for a joy ride (<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/29/google-self-driving-car-blind-man-taco-bell_n_1387930.html" target="_hplink">see video above</a>).
Terrafugia Transition - Flying Car
With its "Transition" car, Terrafugia proves that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/30/terrafugia-transition-fly_n_630578.html#s108243" target="_hplink">the future is finally here</a>. The operator of this amazing vehicle can drive it <em>and</em> fly it. The Transition has already been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly in the skies and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/09/terrafugia-transition-flying-car_n_893402.html#s305568" target="_hplink">by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to drive on roads</a>. If you happen to have a driver's license, pilot license, and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/03/terrafugia-transition-test-flight_n_1399267.html" target="_hplink">$279,000</a>, this car might be the one for you. The Transition was slated for consumer release in late 2011, but that date has been delayed and no new date has been announced.
Moller M200G Hover Car
If you happen to be a fan of "The Jetsons," you're going to love this. For about $125,000, you can get your hands on your very own M200G Hover-Car, thanks to Moller International, <a href="http://gizmodo.com/280546/moller-m200g-hover+car-in-production-and-selling-for-125k" target="_hplink">reported Gizmodo way back in 2007</a>. While the M200G is pretty cool to look at (even if the photo is a little retro), a sleek flying car called the <a href="http://moller.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=50&Itemid=58" target="_hplink">M400 Skycar</a> may be the company's next project (though so far there's been no word on how it's coming along.)
This futuristic-looking "supercar," the <a href="http://www.tramontanagroup.com/car/car.php" target="_hplink">Tramontana R</a>, is a product of European auto-maker <a href="http://www.tramontanagroup.com/adtramontana/adtramontana.php" target="_hplink">a.d. Tramontana</a> and <a href="http://www.tramontanagroup.com/adtramontana/adtramontana.php" target="_hplink">features</a> a carbon fiber body, a max speed of more than 200 mph, and a V12 engine that produces a maximum horsepower of 720. Unfortunately, all of these awesome specs (and the fact that it looks almost as cool as the Batmobile) have landed the car with a ridiculous price tag. <a href="http://www.forbes.com/2009/04/24/car-cool-model-lifestyle-vehicles-car-cool_slide_10.html?thisSpeed=undefined" target="_hplink">According to Forbes</a>, it costs upwards of $511,126, and only 12 are released each year.
BMW ConnectedDrive Connect
BMW's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/26/bmw-self-driving-car_n_1234362.html" target="_hplink">ConnectedDrive Connect system</a> can be installed in current BMW models and allows the car to drive itself. While at the moment the system operates only on pre-mapped roads, further developments will allow the car to adapt and drive on any street.
Audi's 2012 "super-luxury" vehicle is hailed as a standout in its class. <a href="http://usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/cars-trucks/Audi_A8/" target="_hplink">Writes U.S. News</a>, <blockquote>Test drivers say the A8's cabin is exceptionally crafted, and the standard MMI infotainment system now features Google Earth views on its navigation screen and available Wi-Fi connectivity, thanks to a SIM card in the A8's dash. Reviewers like the design and features inside the A8, but note that it packs less cargo space than many competing luxury sedans. Passenger space, on the other hand is ample. </blockquote> If it's anything like its predecessor, the Audi A7, which our own Jason Gilbert called a "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/16/2012-audi-a7-features_n_900788.html#s310151&title=Head_Up_Windshield" target="_hplink">tech-lover's dream</a>," the A8 is sure to win over drivers who have $75,704 to $130,192 laying around.
SARTRE And Volvo's Road Train
In partnership with the Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) program, Volvo is testing the "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/22/sartre-road-train-platoon-car_n_811632.html#s227279" target="_hplink">road train</a>" system, in which a lead vehicle pilots a column of cars down highways. The head car controls the others via Wi-Fi, allowing the drivers to sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride. <a href="http://www.autoblog.com/2012/01/24/sartre-autonomous-road-train-enters-final-phase-with-trio-of-vol/" target="_hplink">According to Autoblog</a>, the system is entering its final phase of testing and should be able to accomodate six vehicles by the year's end. No firm release date has been set.
Similar to the Terrafugia Transition, the PAL-V (or Personal Air and Land Vehicle) was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/02/flying-car-unveiled-in-ho_n_1397882.html?1333399106" target="_hplink">developed in Holland </a> and can reach speeds of up to 110 mph. Watch the video above to learn more!
Flying Hybrid Car
Pretty soon there will be a <em>hybrid</em> flying car on the market, too. While this Burt Rutan model has yet to be approved for regular use on the road, it is fueled by both electric motors and gasoline engines, so, whether driving or flying, you're traveling a little greener than the rest. [Via <a href="http://www.wired.com/autopia/2011/07/burt-rutan-designs-hybrid-flying-car/" target="_hplink">Wired</a>]
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/19/new-delorean-electric-version_n_1019222.html" target="_hplink">In October of last year</a>, the DeLorean Motor Company, makers behind the iconic DMC-12, used as the time machine in <em>Back to the Future</em>, announced an all-electric model for, well, the future. <a href="http://delorean.com/content/news/electric/dmcevpr.pdf" target="_hplink">According to a press release</a>, the company paired up with Epic Electric Vehicles to bring this well-known car back to life and plans to market it in the States in 2013.
Mitsubishi's i-MiEV is a cleaner alternative to city driving. <a href="http://i.mitsubishicars.com/miev/features" target="_hplink">According to Mitsubishi's website</a>, the i-MiEV features a lithium-ion battery system along with its motor and other engine components, a seating capacity of four, and a max speed of about 80 miles per hour. This super-green vehicle <a href="http://www.mitsubishi-motors.com/special/ev/4innovations/index.html" target="_hplink">recently clinched the top spot</a> on the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy's (ACEEE) 14th annual Greenest Cars List for 2012.