Americans will soon be able to surf the Internet, hold a video call and connect with friends on social media all via the dashboard of their car while sitting in the driver's seat. Further down the road, no one may need to be in the driver's seat at all.
Humans have been at the helm of the vehicle for the past 120 years. But now cars are starting to think for themselves and talk to smartphones, intersections and each other through what are broadly called intelligent transportation systems, or ITS. Cars are connecting through a combination of Wi-Fi, GPS, cameras, radar and sensors. And as technology improves, vehicles will take increasing control of their own mobility.
Advances in in-vehicle technology could save lives or create a whole new set of distractions. Photo courtesy of the Transportation Department.
"It's happening faster than you think," said Peter Sweatman, director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, during an interview at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America's annual meeting and exposition last month in Nashville, Tenn.
Big-name automakers, including Audi AG, Volkswagen AG, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and Ford Motor Co., have already developed technologies that allow vehicles to park, operate in traffic and brake without any input from the driver.
General Motors Co. announced last month it would start "real world" testing of its semiautomatic "Super Cruise" system capable of hands-free lane following, braking and speed control. The feature could be commercially available on Cadillac models before the end of the decade.
Meanwhile, Google Inc. has developed a fleet of self-driving cars that are shuttling the company's employees to work on California highways. They are also legal to operate in Nevada and Florida. Google says its cars could reduce traffic accidents, wasted commuting time and energy, and the number of cars on the road by 90 percent. According to moderate estimates, these driverless vehicles could go on sale to consumers as soon as 2020.
To keep up with the fast pace of technological development, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will hold a hearing tomorrow on the potential risks and safety benefits of autonomous and wirelessly connected vehicles. Today, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will also take up the issue at a three-day global symposium on connected vehicles hosted by the Transportation Research Institute.
"When we see this convergence of connected and automated vehicles, it's going to be a revolution," Sweatman said. "We're going to be in a situation where we don't just get a small percentage improvement in things like safety, fuel efficiency, emissions, traffic flow and so on, we're going to see order of magnitude changes."
Reducing fuel use, emissions and 'havoc'
A Department of Transportation pilot project underway in Ann Arbor, Mich., has already collected 7 billion safety messages exchanged among 3,000 cars, trucks and transit buses equipped with vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology. By alerting drivers to potential collisions, DOT believes, connected vehicle systems could eliminate 80 percent of crashes among nonimpaired drivers and greatly improve roadway efficiency.
"Having vehicles connected to each other and connected to the infrastructure, we believe, is going to make a dramatic improvement on safety," Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez said in an interview.
"I think you also have to take into account that it's going to improve air quality," he added.
In connection with V2V and V2I research, DOT is gathering data on vehicle emissions through the five-year Applications for the Environment: Real-Time Information Synthesis (AERIS) program. Transportation produces about 27 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Measuring how and where emissions occur can support carbon-cutting initiatives like eco-lanes that prioritize alternative fuel vehicles and eco-driving practices, or encourage system operators to optimize traffic signals for greater throughput and less fuel consumption.