I’m driving through eastern France, the blip-blip of the lane markers zinging backward through my peripheral vision at about 90 mph. I check the mirrors: nothing there. Pretending to doze off, I let the car drift gently to the left. Just as it begins to veer over the dotted line, the left side of my seat vibrates, activated by an infrared sensor looking at the road paint. Meander right, and it’s my right thigh that gets the warning. If this really had been a case of inattention rather than journalistic inquiry, I can assure you that the buzzing seat would have jolted me back to the job at hand. The car I’m driving is a prototype from the French automaker Peugeot Citron, but a showroom-ready copy isn’t many months away.
Flash back five months: I’m at a test track at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan, in a Lexus fitted with a pre-crash safety system. I drive down the track at about 40 mph toward a rubber post. Instinct and education make it hard to keep my foot off the brake, but a group of earnest engineers insist that I aim their $70-grand sedan straight for the post. At the last fraction of a second, when the car’s radar sensors and microprocessors have determined that the idiot at the wheel really isn’t going to steer around the obstacle, the safety system shoots into action. Seatbelt pre-tensioners cinch up, and the front and rear suspension dampers stiffen. As soon as I touch the brake pedal—better late than never—the car’s brake-assist tugs them on at max effort. It isn’t enough to avoid the crash, but the impact speed is about half what it would have been without the new system.
The next generation of environment-sensing cars will use more than just radar and infrared sensors to watch for signs of trouble. Video cameras will look for stoplights that have turned red and for children who are running toward the road. Distance-sensing lasers will check for vehicles in the driver’s blind spot and the passing lane. These sensors won’t do anything that a vigilant driver can’t already do, but what if they could? What if your car could sense road conditions and traffic problems that are out of your sight? That’s coming too.
The next giant leap in sensing will be radio networking that enables cars to exchange information. “Communication [between cars] will be like an additional sensor,” says Ralf Herrtwich, director of vehicle IT research at DaimlerChrysler. Car-to-car communication will ensure that your automobile is impeccably informed about road conditions ahead. And this extra “sensor” will have almost unlimited range, because information can be instantaneously relayed from one vehicle to the next, to the next, and so on.
No one doubts the extent of information-gathering and communication features that will be built into the networked cars of the future. Some of these features will merely assist the driver by, for example, pointing out a patch of black ice around the next bend. But what about the driver who fails to act on the warning? Should his car be empowered to “take the wheel”? Some automotive experts foresee a day when our cars will be so well informed that we’ll be better off leaving some of the driving to them.
Time for another demonstration. It’s Berlin, and I’m in a Smart car, DaimlerChrysler’s tiny two-seater that has become a familiar sight in Europe’s cramped city streets. But this Smart is different: It’s smart. On the dashboard, a flashing display warns me of an accident two streets away, and the
navigation system suggests a detour. My car, outfitted with a GPS position finder and an off-
the-shelf wireless local area
network (WLAN) communication system, was tipped off by another car carrying the same gear.
If knowledge is power, then the intellectual-horsepower rating of tomorrow’s vehicles is going to be tarmac-
shreddingly high. Say just one car’s stability-control system is activated at an unusually slow speed on a highway off-ramp. It’ll send out a slippery-road warning. All WLAN-equipped cars in the vicinity then get the message, but they’ll warn their drivers only if they’re headed for the same off-ramp.
The system will also provide traffic information on a need-to-know basis. Imagine there’s a truck unloading in the next street on your route. It would never make the radio reports, but you could be trapped fuming for 10 minutes. WLAN—“traffic radar,” as Herrtwich puts it—will let you know and reroute you. What’s really new here is the way traffic will behave almost biologically, like a swarm of bees, a self-educating network.
This is a killer app, because it doesn’t require expensive infrastructure. No traffic-control center or information exchange. No need for roadside beacons that the authorities would have to install. Instead cars will seamlessly set up
ad hoc networks, passing information from car to car.
Virtually all of the necessary hardware is already on the shelf at companies such as Bosch, Delphi and Samsung. What’s needed now is the software to tie everything together: sensors, wireless radio networks and GPS navigation systems. Together these technologies create a system that provides immediate warnings of delays, accidents, temporary speed restrictions and road conditions—the everyday hazards that lie in wait just around the corner. And because the system knows exactly where each driver is, it won’t drown drivers in a running commentary about what’s happening on the other side of town (unless the other side of town is the destination they have programmed into their navigation systems).
Of course, the system will not work well if there aren’t enough vehicles outfitted with the gear. The question is how to reach critical mass. Fortunately, WLAN networks are good for more than just traffic radar; they’re also useful for downloading entertainment. “Ten years from now, we’re talking about a radically changed way of listening to music, watching TV and videos,” Herrtwich says. Once WLAN is adopted for in-car entertainment, the technology could also be used for road-safety and traffic-networking functions. Herrtwich puts the cost at much less than the navigation system it will be paired with. Call it a couple hundred of today’s dollars.
But don’t hold your breath. Technical standards are still a few years away—Herrtwich predicts 2008. If the first networked cars roll out in 2010, such features won’t be standard for at least another decade.
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