Innovation Blog


Full speed ahead for intelligent car design

Full speed ahead for intelligent car design

Financial Times, 20 February 2007 - A planned 'active safety' system in US cars promises to cut congestion, but drivers may be reluctant to take it up. A decade or so down the road from now, if all goes to plan, driving in the US will be a smoother, less adrenaline-rich experience.

Your car will be wired to avoid colliding with other cars or swerving off the road, sometimes by steering, decelerating or braking automatically. Motorways will bristle with wireless equipment that can beam you messages, charge tolls without stopping, or pre-empt traffic lights for emergency vehicles. Your car will also send information on traffic or weather conditions to central agencies in an effort to prevent delays and dangerous pile-ups.

This super-safe roadway of the future is approaching thanks to a joint push by government and business. In the US, the world's largest car market, Ford, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler, along with Japan's Toyota, Nissan and Honda and Germany's Volkswagen and BMW, have formed a consortium to establish standards and protocols for equipment.

The industry has joined with the US federal and state transportation departments and professional associations in the Vehicle Infrastructure Integration (VII) Consortium, as the technology is called, which is being tried at test beds in Michigan and California.

America's Federal Communications Commission has set aside 75 MHz of communications spectrum for it, and Japan and the European Union are also studying VII.

"The vision is a nationwide communications network that includes roads, intersections and vehicles," says David Henry, of DaimlerChrysler.

Road crashes in the US alone kill about 42,000 people a year and cost the economy $230bn (£118bn), according to the state of Michigan. Accident rates have dropped recently with improvements in standard safety equipment, but the trend line is flattening due to the constant factor of human error. With "passive safety" devices such as airbags and seatbelts now widely used, safety experts say "active safety" is the new frontier. The technology could also cut fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by reducing traffic congestion.

While car companies and regulators agree the technology is coming, some barriers stand in the way. Carmakers may have agreed on the need for standardised roadside infrastructure and compatible transceivers and processors, but will US motorists embrace the technology? A universal safety and traffic-management system that wires cars to each other and terrestrial infrastructure will raise privacy and civil liberty issues.

And lawyers and carmakers have barely begun to explore the legal liability implications if cars make snap decisions for drivers.

Such concerns are not stopping the eight carmakers forging ahead with tests. On a recent afternoon near Ford Motor's headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, Joe Stinnett, a product design engineer, heads on to the motorway to demonstrate an experimental Global Positioning System (GPS)-based device that allows motorists to "see" vehicles brake suddenly, even if the leading vehicle is several cars away or on a curve.

A processing box mounted in the Volvo allows Mr Stinnett's car to "paint" the curve of the road ahead and brake safely when a Jaguar, equipped with its own device, suddenly brakes (Ford owns the Volvo and Jaguar brands). The Volvo's driver is warned with an emergency light, but over time the technology is expected to evolve into "autonomous braking".

Carmakers are focusing most of their experiments on lane departures and intersection collisions, since they account for about 80 per cent of accidents. Also being tested are systems that will warn drivers when they are approaching a bend too fast.

Wireless infrastructure at the roadside will allow for "open-road tolling", warnings about speed limits or construction or school zones. It will also allow advertising – a potential irritant to motorists, which VII advocates argue could help pay for the equipment, US-wide, will cost an estimated $4bn to $6bn. The infrastructure can also be used to balance traffic merging from multiple roadways.

Ford is also researching driver drowsiness and the distractions posed by mobile phone use. In a possible sign of cars to come, the 2007 model of Volvo's S80 saloon car is wired to examine how well someone is driving – based on acceleration, steering and other patterns – before "deciding" whether to forward or divert an incoming phone call (see below).

Another area is collection of data from vehicles. A critical mass of cars turning on their windshield wipers at once, or detecting icy road conditions through sensors in their tyres, might beam the information to trafficcontrol centres that can warn other motorists. "There are hundreds or thousands of applications you could do," says Suzanne Murtha, head of vehicle safety systems with ITS of America. "It's limited to the collective imagination."

However, it is far from certain that the American public will share the safety advocates' enthusiasm for the technology. "American carbuyers traditionally will not buy safety equipment," admits Greg Krueger of the Michigan Department of Transportation. While the typical American driver might spend lavishly on stereo equipment, for example, anti-lock brakes were not common in the US until they became legally required about a decade ago. Techno-Com Wireless, a telematics company involved in wireless location technology estimates that the transceiver for VII will cost less than $100 per vehicle, not including related applications. But economy-minded buyers of small cars in particular may balk at the added cost. That could force carmakers to absorb it at a time when they already face intense pressure from high raw material and other costs.

The potential privacy and legal complications surrounding technology that could allow law enforcement officials or outside hackers to track cars also remain relatively unexplored. Americans have fought hard against milder incursions on their privacy.

Members of the VII Consortium met with the American Civil Liberties Union to discuss the technology last year, and committed to anonymous data transfer, with no initial objections voiced. Specialists in Michigan and elsewhere are looking at ways of shielding motorists' privacy. Potentially even thornier are legal issues that extend not just to malfunctions in vehicles themselves – worrying enough for the carmakers – but to the reliability of public infrastructure.

For the technology to work, equipment must be standard across the US from the first day, says Mr Krueger, and "has to work in every state from day one". The state and federal departments of transport, together with the eight carmakers and regional authorities, are due to decide late next year whether to recommend national deployment to the US Congress.

If it gets the go-ahead, the infrastructure will start to appear on the roadside within about three years.