Smarter cars, digital pilots for all-too-human drivers

The News TribuneMarch 2, 2014 

A self-driving car, developed and outfitted by Google, is being demonstrated at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.


The historically slow-witted automobile is soon to get smarter, more talkative and a lot safer. More expensive, too – but the payoff will include the saving of thousands of lives.

Last month, without much ado, the U.S. Department of Transportation, decided to “enable” vehicle-to-vehicle digital communications for American cars. That’s bureaucratese for moving to make V2V systems mandatory in new cars. They promise to prevent many of the collisions now caused by drivers with non-digital brains.

V2V is based on well-established technology that lets multiple moving vehicles (or people) communicate with each other while whizzing down the road.

A V2V-equipped car automatically forms a wireless network with other cars within a certain distance. The vehicles exchange telemetry continually.

If you’re tempted to pass that tall, slow-moving truck blocking your view of the oncoming lane, for example, your car figures out that there’s a vehicle headed your way.

At intersections, you get warned if another guy is barreling through without yielding the right of way. On the freeway, when an erratic driver is primed to dart into your lane, his car warns your car and you can take evasive maneuvers.

You’ll know if the SUV in the opposite lane is about to take a left against traffic, or if the guy just ahead is angling to cut you off. That would be particularly helpful in the Puget Sound region, where so many motorists consider signaling strictly optional.

Once any remaining bugs in V2V are worked out, the technology can’t come soon enough. Of the 30,000-plus people who die on the roads every year, half or more are killed in the kind of crashes that V2V is designed to prevent. The systems won’t be popular with the drivers who see the road as a place to anonymously vent their rage or aggression. Tough. Let them join a fight club.

Vehicle-to-vehicle networking is part of a much larger wave of technology that will turn driving into an entirely different thing.

Smart cars that drive themselves (with human override) are already on low-speed roads in Europe. Crash avoidance technology is trickling down from luxury to mid-priced autos. Many of today’s cars automatically keep a safe distance from the car ahead and warn drivers if they’re drifting into another lane. In some systems, the computer takes over the brakes or steering wheel if the driver is oblivious to an imminent collision.

Technology probably won’t replace human judgment behind the wheel for a long time to come, but there are a lot of humans – many with an exaggerated sense of their own driving competence – who could use real-time alerts from their dashboards.

It’s scary: The roads teem with drivers who are drunk, stoned, impulsive, drowsy, inexperienced, aggressive, reckless, texting, chatting or otherwise distracted. They kill at least twice as many people as murderers. Digital driving assistants can only be a trade up.

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