Safe Driving: Why Your Next Car Will be Connected to the Cars Around it

When cars can talk to the Internet, many interesting things can happen. When they can talk to each other, though, even more possibilities open up.

Connected cars that have always-on Internet connections and are able to send and receive data as the driver moves through traffic are becoming more and more common. The next wave or car connectivity, however, could be less about the Internet and more about creating ad-hoc networks between cars and allowing them to talk to each other. Various academic and industry groups are currently working on testing these systems, which allow cars within a certain radius to alert each other of sudden stops, cars that are about to blow red lights and other hazards.

Making Car-to-Car Communication Mandatory

This isn’t just an academic question anymore, either, as Ford, for example, is already regularly demonstrating the abilities of its system to the press and as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has set a deadline for developing a standard for this kind of car-to-car connectivity. By 2013, the car industry is expected to agree on a standard for these systems and there is some talk about making them mandatory in new cars soon thereafter.

I spent some time in Dearborn, MI last month and got to take a look at Ford’s car-to-car “Intelligent Vehicles” communications system (see disclaimer below) that shows just how effective this kind of technology can be in avoiding accidents. The video below shows what this looks like in practice:

The technology allows the cars within a set radius around each other to exchange basic data like location, speed and direction of travel and more detailed information like whether somebody is accelerating, decelerating or braking and what a car’s steering angle currently is.


Coming to a Car and Intersection Near You

To make all of this a reality, though, car makers will not just have to agree on a standard for exchanging this information, but tools like this will also have to be available in enough cars to make them useful. As one of Ford’s engineers explained to me, there are already some technologies that make some of this functionality available to drivers, but they are generally based on proprietary – and hence expensive – parts. These car-to-car communication systems, on the other hand, are mostly based on off-the-shelf technology and can get their data from sensors that are already standard in most new cars anyway.

The system gets even more effective once the streets themselves also become connected. Not only could an intersection tell a driver that he is about to blow a red light, but traffic lights themselves could also be adjusted on the fly for any given traffic condition.

If the NHTSA really makes car-to-car communication mandatory, we will likely see rapid development in the deployment of these technologies, which, after all, will also make driving safer and could even speed up the arrival of self-driving cars.

What About the Police?

While thinking about this technology, I couldn’t help but also think about what this will mean for detecting speeders. Today, traffic cops still have to get out their laser or radar guns to find speeders. This new technology could make things a bit easier. Just wait for a speeding car to pass within range, get the data and pull the driver over. When cars are talking to each other, after all, they will also talk to the police cruiser that is parked next to the road. So far, I haven’t seen anybody address this issue, but it will surely become a hot topic as awareness about car-to-car communication grows.

Disclaimer: Ford covered for my travel and hotel expenses to the Forward with Ford conference in June.