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.

"ITS and transportation systems management and operations -- by improving traffic flow, reducing the starts and stops, [and] acceleration and deceleration -- really reduces greenhouse gases," said Louis Neudorff, ITS expert at CH2M Hill.

According to research by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, applying real-time signal optimization systems to the U.S. traffic network can reduce stopping by as much as 40 percent, reduce travel time by as much as 25 percent, cut gasoline consumption by 10 percent and reduce emissions by 22 percent.

In terms of climate change adaptation, adjusting traffic signals and signs can also alert drivers to road closures or direct them to evacuation sites during severe weather events like Superstorm Sandy, Neudorff said. "[ITS] is not going to prevent the havoc, but it can help minimize the havoc," he added.

Alternative to building more freeways
Companies like Siemens AG, Xerox Corp. and Schneider Electric SA have already built adaptive traffic management systems in cities across the United States. These systems do not use Wi-Fi-based V2I communications systems, which are still in their infancy. Instead, they rely on sensors and imaging to determine a vehicle's location and speed in order to reduce congestion.

"Many cities want to become more green, and this is an ideal way to do it. The traffic congestion in a city is probably one of your biggest pollutants," said Patrick McGowan, president of Schneider Electric's North America transportation division.

In addition to optimizing car travel, ITS technologies can also support alternative modes of transportation.

Iteris Inc., for instance, offers a technology that can detect when a bicycle enters an intersection and lengthen the traffic signal time so the cyclist can leave the area safely. One of Siemens' systems in San Antonio is designed to know whether a bus is off schedule and adjust the street lights so it gets back on track without interrupting the regular flow of traffic.

These types of tailored traffic systems can make low-carbon forms of transportation more appealing and allow for overall greater road capacity.

"You could build a new freeway, which is very, very expensive, or you could build a new technology ... and move the traffic at a pretty good speed from one end [of a city] to the other end," said Stephen Mathew, head of product marketing at Siemens' road and city mobility division.

More brains, fewer bricks and -- hopefully -- deaths
The idea of squeezing more capacity out of existing roadways is appealing to governments that are trying to meet the demand for mobility that comes from rising populations and a growing economy, while also coping with tight budgets.

"Our field has traditionally had a very engineering-centric focus to it," said Polly Trottenberg, DOT undersecretary, speaking at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America summit. "Nowadays, I think ... a lot of our transportation challenges are going to call for operational and technological solutions in addition to bricks and mortar."

By 2014, the gas-tax-funded Highway Trust Fund will be nearly bankrupt, according to Trottenberg. Technological solutions like electronic tolling could squeeze more revenue out of roads and other infrastructure, while other ITS solutions add more capacity to them. Tolls and other user fees could help supplement the gas tax, particularly as consumers switch to more fuel-efficient vehicles (ClimateWire, April 16).

But policymakers aren't just interested in budgets; they're also focused on safety. More than 32,000 people died on U.S. highways in 2011, and while the overall number of traffic deaths has declined in recent years, the number of distracted-driving traffic deaths has slightly increased, according to David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

In theory, synchronizing cellphone applications with a vehicle's infotainment system will reduce the amount of time drivers spend looking at their phones instead of the road. Over the next year, the software provider Airbiquity Inc. is working with three automakers to launch a technology in 32 languages and 53 countries that would connect smartphones directly to a vehicle's dashboard. Drivers would be able to pair up their phone, start driving and use certain cellphone apps like Facebook and Twitter through verbal commands or steering wheel controls.

"Some people are going to like it, some will not," said David Jumpa, chief revenue officer at Airbiquity. "The next generation can't live without it."

To the extent that people can't get what they need from their car, they'll turn to their phone. But as this type of technology becomes more sophisticated, there's a concern it could end up being just as distracting as a cellphone or perhaps even more so.

DOT has yet to issue a mandate for in-vehicle electronics systems. Last month, however, the department released voluntary guidelines calling for stakeholders to disable video calling, social media and Web browsing features unless the vehicle is in park and to limit the time drivers must take their eyes off the road to 2 seconds at a time and 12 seconds total per task.

Look, Ma, no driver!
Driverless cars, while they take away the issue of distracted driving, present a whole new set of concerns. What if the automated system fails? How will control transfer between the computer and the driver? What if the driver is drunk? And how will other drivers react to this new technology?

"What do you do when you're driving a vehicle and you look next to you and you see a person reading the newspaper while driving, how does that make you feel?" asked Mike Schagrin, program manager of the Connected Vehicle Safety & Automation Office of DOT's Research and Innovative Technology Administration.

"Technically, we are really far along; it's all these nontechnical issues that really are the hurdles," he added.

NHTSA is studying the different levels of vehicle automation and plans to release a decision by the end of the year on whether it will regulate automatic braking, in which a vehicle stops by itself to avoid an impending collision. The administration also plans to decide whether V2V and V2I communications systems should be mandated, be incentivized or undergo more research and development.

"It is virtually an impossible task to keep apace with the technological evolution that we're seeing right now," NHTSA's Strickland said. "The best thing that we can do as department and as an agency is be able to create the right framework and make sure that whatever technology innovation happens always happens in that zone of safety that's bounded by good engineering, good science and good data."

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