Traffic jams and collisions aren't only frustrating for drivers, but they multiply emissions and are potentially life-threatening and damaging to the economy. But these problems could dissipate as more vehicles take to the roads equipped to communicate with each other and drive themselves.

Speaking at the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center in McLean, Va., yesterday, President Obama touted the benefits of technologies that make driving "smarter."

"I just got a tour of a lab where automakers and government researchers team up to create new technologies that help cars communicate with the world around them and with each other," he said. "They can tell you if an oncoming vehicle is about to run a red light, or if a car is coming around a blind corner, or if a detour would help you save time and gas."

Obama cited a study that found Americans spend 5.5 billion hours stuck in traffic each year at a cost of $120 billion in wasted time and gas—or $800 per commuter.

Car crashes have an even bigger price tag. The nearly 33,000 road deaths and more than 3.9 million injuries in 2010 cost Americans $871 billion in economic loss and societal harm, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The Department of Transportation, in conjunction with the auto industry, has been developing cutting-edge vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication technology that could reduce up to 80 percent of crashes that don't involve fatigue or alcohol.

Using short-range wireless signals, connected vehicle technology can alert drivers if a car up ahead slams on the brakes or if an oncoming car is about to run a stop sign. V2V communication can also enable the highest level of vehicle automation, or self-driving capability, by giving a car complete awareness of its environment.

Google plans to launch a fleet
To ensure that V2V and V2I technologies deliver on their potential road safety benefits, automakers are urging Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to protect the 5.9-gigahertz spectrum reserved for connected vehicles.

Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced legislation (S. 2505) last month that would open the wireless spectrum to other devices like cell phones and laptops. Technology and car companies have said they're working with the senators and the FCC to find a technical solution for spectrum sharing that won't compromise on safety.

Making connected cars a reality will also make for cleaner cars, according to Matthew Stepp, executive director of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation's (ITIF) Center for Clean Energy Innovation.

For instance, real-time transportation data allow drivers to navigate around congested routes or reschedule their trip, avoiding unnecessary fuel burn and greenhouse gas emissions. On-board equipment can also advise drivers and their dealers on how to improve vehicle maintenance for improved fuel efficiency.

"Connected car fixes like that, being able to connect dealerships, manufacturers, consumers and cars altogether, provide some modest fuel savings," said Stepp, in the 5 to 15 percent range.

Self-driving vehicles—often included with V2V and V2I under the heading of "smart transportation systems"—have the potential to offer even greater fuel savings, he said. If all Americans used self-driving cars, studies show it would reduce U.S. gasoline consumption 20 to 30 percent.

"That mainly comes from reducing congestion, reducing accidents, which feeds into the congestion problem, and reducing the amount of miles traveled per car," Stepp said. "That's because the cars are driving directly to where they need to go versus getting lost and driving around looking for parking spots and things like that."

The Internet giant Google has been testing autonomous cars since 2010. Rather than rely on V2V communications, Google's novel technology uses light radar and mapping software to guide the vehicle as a completely independent unit.

In May, Google unveiled its self-driving vehicle prototype. The two-seater robotic taxi comes with no steering wheel or brake and gas pedals. In the coming years, Google plans to build and test a fleet of 100 prototypes.

Homework for state legislators
Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh is also working on autonomous cars. While test-riding a self-driving car at the university last month, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said the next highway and transit bill should incorporate funding for such innovative technologies (E&E Daily, June 25).

Despite these efforts, it will likely take decades before society sees the benefits of driverless cars. According to Lux Research, fully autonomous cars still won't be on the market by 2030.

But certain autonomous features will become commercially available in the coming years, such as adaptive cruise control, hands-off lane following and automatic braking. Ford, Toyota, BMW and other manufacturers already offer vehicles with the ability to self-park.

In a new report, Navigant Research forecasts that approximately 40 percent of new vehicles will be equipped with some form of autonomous driving capability by 2030. That amount is expected to rise to 75 percent by 2035.

According to David Alexander, a research analyst at Navigant, the basic building blocks of obstacle detection and internal system control that autonomous vehicles need have already been established. The biggest technical barrier is the overall decisionmaking software that allows a vehicle to navigate on its own.

Legal and regulatory issues are also significant speed bumps.

"The biggest non-technical barrier is that autonomous vehicles are prohibited on public roads pretty much everywhere," Alexander said. "Legislation is being passed in many places to allow testing on public roads, but only if a qualified engineer is in the driver's seat. Legislators need to work on defining what will be allowed and when, and what are the conditions or performance requirements of a self-driving vehicle."

California, Nevada and Florida allow for autonomous vehicle testing, but only in certain applications. In a recent paper, the Brookings Institution argued that as automation technology becomes more widely available, liability issues related to autonomous commercial vehicles will need to be addressed at both the state and federal levels.

Having already logged thousands of miles with driverless vehicles, Google will be a pivotal in getting regulators comfortable with the technology, according to Stepp of ITIF. Developers of self-driving cars will have to win over American consumers, too.

"In 20 to 30 years, there's going to be people who still drive cars because it's cool to do," Stepp said. "There will still be old-school stalwarts."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500