David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company whose work has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and the Wall Street Journal. He lives in Brooklyn.
Connected vehicles — the so-called "internet of cars" — could be the biggest transportation advance since the car itself.
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—"This curve here, you wouldn't think much of it," Debra Bezzina is saying, "but somebody was killed here two years ago, and they didn't even find him right away." Our van, driven by Bezzina's University of Michigan colleague Rick Byrd, is coming up on a curve that indeed looks relatively benign, even in this icy January weather. But Bezzina shares the story of the man who took the curve too quickly and skidded off the road. He wasn't the first to do so.
I brace myself as we approach, and something unusual happens: an alarm sounds from the dashboard, and an alert flashes in a corner of the rearview mirror. I realize the mirror doubles as a heads-up display — it shows a right-turn arrow against a blue background that suddenly turns red to warn of danger. Byrd, at the wheel, slows down.
What had just happened was both simple and profound, and people like Bezzina and Byrd, employees of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI or "um-tree" for short), say it could transform the way American drivers experience their commutes. The van in which we're driving — an UMTRI van with a splashy yellow decal that reads "Connecting the Future" — has been equipped with technology to alert its driver in a range of situations. In this case, a piece of roadside equipment nearby was broadcasting to vehicles like ours the speed at which to safely take the coming turn. A router-like device in the van caught the signal, noted that the van was at risk, and issued the alert we just heard.
The UMTRI van isn't the only vehicle on the road here that's so futuristically equipped. I've come to Ann Arbor in the last weeks of an 18-month large-scale trial of connected vehicle technology. The trial was funded largely by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which wants to know about the safety benefits of such devices. There are 2,800 vehicles in Ann Arbor participating in this "Safety Pilot," as the program is called. All are equipped with devices that communicate their vehicle's speed and position. A select 400 also include alert systems like the one I've just witnessed in the UMTRI van, together with cameras to capture further information — including how drivers react to such alerts. Cars, trucks, tractor trailers, and even a bicycle are wired for the pilot.
"It's the largest deployment of vehicle-to-vehicle technology in the world," says Scott Belcher, chief of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a trade association of which UMTRI is a member.
The sharp-bend alert isn't the only kind Ann Arbor drivers have been experiencing over the last year and a half: there has been a symphony of them, some triggered by communications between a pair of cars, others triggered by an interaction between a car and transmitters along the road. In all manner of hairy situations — a tricky left turn, an approaching train at a railroad crossing, a car looming in a blind spot, or a car suddenly slamming on brakes up ahead — technology like that in the UMTRI van has been making driving in Ann Arbor safer.
Many have heard by now of high-profile research into autonomous cars that can drive themselves by using fancy sensors to detect their surroundings. The automotive revolution we're likely to see sooner, say experts here in Michigan, may not come from cars that sense but from cars that talk. These experts speak of a coming "internet of cars" — and some think it could bring about the biggest change in how we transport ourselves since the car was first invented.
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The first and most important application, of course, would be safety. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has already estimated that vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology like what's in these Ann Arbor cars and on these Ann Arbor roads could reduce "non-impaired crash scenarios" (read: crashes caused by sober drivers) by 80 percent. "That's bigger than seatbelts, bigger than airbags," says Belcher. "Basically, you're creating cars that don't crash."
Though it's still crunching the Ann Arbor data, NHTSA recently announced that given the "overwhelming safety benefits" of connected vehicles, it would soon propose mandating such technology in new cars by a future date. The announcement signals to manufacturers that connected vehicles represent the next phase in American automotive safety (some car makers may even offer inexpensive devices to retrofit vehicles already on the road). It also addresses a common concern that the full safety benefits of connected vehicles won't emerge until the entire fleet can converse on the road.
But spend enough time interviewing car futurists and soon you realize that safety applications could be just the beginning. Because once you create a ubiquitous "internet of cars" — a world where vehicles, roads, traffic signals, and transportation authorities are all sharing information in real-time — the results could be as wide-reaching, dynamic, and creative as they've been for that other Internet.
Belcher and others point to small-scale experiments designed to hack traffic problems around the country. In midtown Manhattan, for instance, E-Z Pass readers glean traffic data to dynamically alter the timing of traffic lights and lessen gridlock. San Francisco has used sensors to experiment with the variable pricing of parking spaces in parts of the city. And applications like Google Maps already give traffic flow estimates by using various types of traffic sensors. But experts think that these three applications could be improved upon — and many others invented — in a world where every car shares information about its position and velocity.
Some of these futurists foresee a day when communications technology and self-driving technology combine to create a veritable transportation utopia. Kirk Steudle, the director of Michigan's Department of Transportation, remembers his own conversion moment on a GM test track, when a combination of communications and safety technology brought the Cadillac in which he was riding to a sudden, automatic stop — mere feet from a parked car. "I used to say that for civil engineers and mechanical engineers, the only interface we ever had was the tire," says Steudle with a chuckle. Now those who build cities and those who build cars have a lot more to talk about.
Because new realities become possible in a future where cars are so good at communicating that they just don't crash. You can pack self-driving cars right next to each other, creating space for a whole new lane on highways. You can huddle cars together in tight platoons, creating NASCAR-like drafting effects that save gasoline. You can rethink the design of a car altogether, slimming it down. And you can rethink business models, selling travel time in shared cars that act like automated taxis.
"If you've got a communications platform that's reliable and secure, what you can do with it — how you leverage it — is really limited by your own imagination," says Belcher.
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Of course, countless questions remain, many of them thornier than the relatively simple question that the DOT is currently exploring with Safety Pilot's data: How well does this technology work? Some experts wonder whether it makes sense to require manufacturers to use the kind of basic technology being used in Ann Arbor — "dedicated short-range communications," a Wi-Fi like technology — just as advanced cellular networks like 4G LTE grow more widespread.
"There are skeptics out there who think we're invested in Betamax," says Belcher, who nevertheless thinks a commitment to some form of technology is necessary, even if future generations may laugh at it. "It's like buying the first cell phone," he says. "You spend $2,000 for that thing you can't really use. But if people didn't buy those, we wouldn't have what we have today."
Other questions center around whether Americans will want to use some of this technology even if it works perfectly. Car ownership represents a kind of freedom for many; these folks might scoff at the idea of ceding any control of their vehicle. This may be a generational matter, though, since studies have shown that today's teens don't have the same love affair with driving as have generations past.
Researchers and policymakers will also need to assuage fears over security and privacy. Could the "internet of cars" be hacked, with one or more vehicles broadcasting dangerous lies about their velocities? And can drivers be assured that their anonymity is nonetheless being safeguarded even as their on-board devices broadcast information about the state of their car? Connected car evangelists will not only need to solve these problems but to explain these solutions to average drivers. A recent collaboration between UC Berkeley and U.S. DOT researchers imagining smart transportation systems in the year 2050 concluded that "social, political, economic, legal, and environmental dimensions" could be even tougher hurdles to clear than technological ones.
Regardless of the questions ahead, the NHTSA announcement has sent a strong signal to auto manufacturers that it is time to "switch gears from research to development," in the words of Hidekia Hada, a Toyota manager who oversees the automaker's forays into connected vehicles in the United States. He adds that Toyota's participation in a young but sweeping vehicle-to-infrastructure communications platform in Japan has well prepared the manufacturer to spring into action.
Ann Arbor may not have a Jetsons-like display of futurism on its roads just yet, but as we take another turn in the UMTRI van, I begin to realize that the simple beep and flash coming from the mirror may be like the bleating of an old dial-up modem: a sound I'll recall one day with a smirk, and with awe at how far we've come.
Because all the experts here are telling me the future is hurtling towards me, just around the bend, unseen but detected. "It's my strong belief that the ability to connect vehicles to other vehicles, to traffic lights, to signs, to parking spots, and to traffic operation centers will transform the way that you and I are traveling," says Andreas Mai, who studies connected vehicle technology for the communications giant Cisco. "The auto industry is really at the cusp of this transformation right now," he promises. "It's not that far away."
Images: Courtesy of U.S. Department of Transportation (top).