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Can technology create the zero-fatality car?

Computers are building a vehicle so safe, nobody will die

A vehicle that's so safe, nobody will die in it? New technologies are bringing us ever closer to that goal.

Today, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety - the noted US crash-test rating authority sponsored by the insurance industry - rates crash safety based mainly on car-to-barrier collisions. But Ford's Shulman speculates that the DSRC signals could become part of the IIHS ratings and that future cars could be rated for their ability to communicate with other cars -- a glimmer of that possible 'zero fatality' rating for cars down the road.

At a low level, these signals would send out a safety state - for example, the car's speed, the level of brake pressure the driver has applied and steering - to every other car in the vicinity. According to Shulman, this signal would emanate 10 times per second.

A second level of communication involves more detail - the car could send out its current path prediction according to GPS routing, for example, or warn the driver about unsafe traffic conditions reported from other vehicles. One early sign of this was Dash Navigation's Dash Express GPS system, which debuted in early 2008 and sent traffic information from each Dash owner for other drivers to see. (Research in Motion, which purchased Dash Navigation in 2009, discontinued Dash Express service and support on June 30, 2010, for undisclosed reasons.)

All this could lead to what Shulman calls the smart intersection. Cars would know the status of the next traffic light, the speed of other cars and that, say, there was a semi-trailer truck barrelling down the cross street. Shulman says there are other benefits unrelated to safety: drivers could look up the routes they have taken over several weeks or track their miles per gallon from a computer.

Of course, getting car companies to decide on and conform to an approved standard for car communication may be a challenge. Another challenge is that wireless signals can be unreliable in moving vehicles. For example, Wi-Fi, which is just starting to become available in cars such as the 2011 Ford Edge, requires complex algorithms to make sure it works well in a moving vehicle.

It's too soon to tell whether the DSRC signals on the 5.9GHz spectrum will have reliability problems, but there's no doubt that automakers will need to test and retest the communications systems to ensure uptime and accuracy.

Finally, as AutoPacific's Kim notes, no amount of vehicle-to-vehicle communication will help when drivers make monumental mistakes, such as driving into a tree.

NEXT PAGE: Collision avoidance systems

  1. A vehicle that's so safe, nobody will die in it.
  2. Tools of the trade
  3. Simulation limitations
  4. Vehicle communication networks
  5. More about vehicle communication networks
  6. Collision avoidance systems
  7. More on how collisions are avoided

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