Cyberspace as lifesaver

Auto industry is designing for a time when wireless network keeps roads safe

August 11, 2007|By Thomas Content | Thomas Content,Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- The next breakthrough in making driving safer might come from cyberspace, not the vehicle itself.

Most of the technologies deployed in the past by the auto industry have been changes inside the vehicle, from making the structure stronger to adding seat belts, airbags and - in certain high-end models - collision-warning systems.

But for a new generation of drivers, safety could come through a national wireless network that would enable cars to communicate electronically with one another and with the roads they're driving on.

It's an initiative that's expected to roll out over the next 10 to 25 years, experts at an auto industry conference said this week.

"This has the potential to give us a big leap in saving lives," said Steve Speth, director of Chrysler's Vehicle Safety Office.

The glimpse into the auto industry's future takes today's high-tech global positioning systems and turn-by-turn directions a step further.

On the highways and in the cars of the 2030s, a broken-down vehicle on an interstate could send wireless messages to an approaching tractor-trailer, and on to the cars behind it.

Today, a car driving behind that semi would have no warning of the broken-down vehicle until the trucker steps on the brakes.

The new system would deploy wireless communication technology and in-vehicle systems to send alerts to the car behind the truck.

It could even apply the car's brakes automatically if the driver behind the semi is distracted, said Robert C. Lange, executive director of vehicle structure and safety integration at General Motors Corp.

The rapid growth of wireless technology, broadband high-speed Internet and other factors are driving change and investment in vehicle electronics, experts said.

Spending by the auto industry on in-vehicle electronics is projected to triple by 2011, said Harry Voccola, senior vice president of Navteq, a GPS firm, and chairman of the Connected Vehicle Trade Association.

That could mean more business for automotive suppliers. For the system to work, aftermarket suppliers would have to develop systems to retrofit older-model vehicles to connect to a national wireless vehicle network, Lange said.

The primary goal of the program is to improve safety on the road, industry and government officials said.

Vehicle crashes killed more than 43,000 Americans last year, according to federal and state reports. Nationwide, 2.5 million people were injured in crashes, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates cost society more than $230 billion a year.

This fall, a testing lab - the Connected Vehicle Proving Center - will open in Ann Arbor, Mich., to help move the wireless technology forward. The lab is co-sponsored by the trade association and the Center for Automotive Research, the industry think-tank that is hosting the conference. The goal of that lab will be to centralize efforts that are under way piecemeal at various universities and automotive company labs.

Already, onboard vehicle information systems help drivers find the closest gas station to refuel. "Over the next decade, products and services for connected vehicles will, in fact, change the driving experience as we know it today," Voccola said.

Beyond safety, the technology could be used to relieve congestion, experts say. A smart-highway system could send real-time crash information to vehicles and suggest alternate routes.

But major obstacles remain.

The technology will need to be set up with a wireless system that will enable all vehicles to communicate with one another. Today, General Motors can communicate with its customers through the OnStar system, but not to anyone driving a Ford or a Toyota.

Setting up a national system is expected to be costly, and it is unclear how it would be funded.

Congress could earmark funds to create a national digitally collected roadway network, said Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation.

In the wake of the Minnesota tragedy, transportation departments around the country are talking about using electronic monitoring to test the structural integrity of bridges. Funding for that could be tied to funds for a smart-highway network, he suggested.

"That's a very new discussion that is ... percolating around the country," Steudle said.

In addition, privacy concerns remain about how the information collected from vehicles will be used.

Shelley Row, who heads the Intelligent Transportation Systems unit for the federal Department of Transportation, said privacy concerns are a key consideration. Automakers and the transportation department have drafted a set of privacy "principles" - developed with privacy-advocacy groups - that govern how the system will be developed.

"You won't be able to track people by vehicle identification number, where they live or what age they are," said Speth of Chrysler. "That's very important."

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