While Google's self-driving car is getting heaps of attention, a lesser-known effort — which would use cutting-edge technologies to make regular automobiles safer — is gaining traction fast.
This “connected vehicle” program, being developed by federal and state officials, would let cars, trucks and buses wirelessly communicate with one another as well as with traffic signals, sensors in the pavement and other road equipment.
Drivers then would get automatic warnings about hazards such as an icy bridge, an accident in their path, a car racing at them through a red light and a lane change they shouldn't make because of a vehicle alongside.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is due to make key decisions next year about how to proceed. Authorities expect connected-vehicle devices to start showing up in cars by 2019.
“This is going to be a very big deal,” said Greg Larson, a traffic research chief at the California Department of Transportation, which is studying the concept. “I don't see any technical challenges in getting this done,” he said, calling the government's timetable “very realistic.”
Some carmakers already have equipped their vehicles with stand-alone gadgets to alert drivers to potential collisions. But those devices spot only nearby hazards, among other limitations.
And the Google approach, called autonomous vehicles, will be complicated to work out. A big challenge is to design software that can nimbly respond to unexpected events, said Steven Shladover of California Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology, a research group at the University of California-Berkeley.
“The technical problems become much less daunting” if self-driving vehicles are relegated to their own special-purpose lanes, Shladover said. But even so, said Larson, “we think they could work better when they are connected” to other vehicles and roadway devices wirelessly.
With electronic alerts about hazards, drivers could slow down or reroute, transportation officials say. And when an accident did happen, they say, key information about it — location, the speed of vehicles involved, whether air bags were triggered, even motorists' medical histories — could be instantly sent to emergency personnel.
Although many details have yet to be decided, wirelessly connecting cars, stoplights, highway cameras, pavement sensors and other traffic-related gear probably would likely require an array of new microchips, routers, servers, software and other products.
It's unclear how much of that would need to be installed along streets and highways. Some researchers think it would have to be extensive, others say cars could be made smart enough to spot dangers and warn other nearby vehicles without needing much information.
Potentially troublesome issues: how to warn drivers without dangerously distracting them, how to block hackers and how to standardize all the gear that automakers and government agencies might use so that it functions seamlessly.
Another concern: cost. Experts have been vague about that. The tab just to upgrade the microcontroller chips in traffic signals nationwide could top $400 million, according to a study by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Still, if the system works as envisioned, many experts believe the saving could outweigh the cost by averting many of the current 6 million crashes a year, which federal authorities estimate costs $230 billion.