Automotive technology has advanced so rapidly in the last decade that, every time something new comes along, it seems like "the future" becomes a lot less distant.
And many of these technologies were once regarded as so futuristic that they seemed like something out of science fiction.
One of those formerly-"science-fiction" technologies presently in development does indeed seem like something we would have seen in "Blade Runner."
In this case, we're talking about an advanced "intelligent vehicle" safety system that would essentially allow vehicles to "talk" to each other. Car makers have been working on the system for about decade, but engineers say that they could be introduced into production models as early as 2015. Although, it's also possible that it could be more like 2020.
Still, it's a fascinating advance, and one that holds great promise for other related technologies that would benefit drivers immeasurably.
In the last few months, Ford and General Motors have held public demonstrations of these intelligent-vehicle systems in action.
In late January, Ford conducted a demonstration in Washington for journalists and Department of Transportation staffers. And GM's Electronic Networked Vehicle concepts made their North American public debut at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, also in January, after spending six months being big attractions at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai.
And the development of this technology is a team effort, with several carmakers joining forces to shepherd it along. Presently, Ford, GM, Honda, Mercedes, Toyota, Nissan, VW/Audi and Hyundai-Kia are members of a consortium that has set up shop in suburban Detroit, sharing offices, labs and a few garages for their testing. The consortium – dubbed Crash Avoidance Metrics Partnerships (CAMP) -- is funded in part by the Department of Transportation.
As part of the CAMP project, each of the eight carmakers in the consortium will build eight new vehicles equipped with this technology. And another 2,000 vehicles on the road will be retrofitted with the system as part of a test program that will also be partly funded by the DOT.
The intelligent vehicles will essentially use advanced WiFi signals and GPS systems that will send out multiple messages per second to "warn" other drivers – or, the vehicles themselves – of a potential crash. The messages transmit data about the vehicle's location, speed, brakes, steering and other key data that would help the vehicles avoid a collision.
In these intelligent vehicles, the first line of warning would alert the driver. But if the driver does not respond, the system would actually "take over" and apply brakes, or adjust the vehicle's direction.
Primarily, the intelligent-vehicle technology will focus on avoiding collisions by preventing a vehicle from changing lanes, coming up too fast behind a stalled vehicle, or entering an intersection if the light has turned red – or if another driver has run a red light or stop sign.
When the carmakers first began working on the system, the Federal Communications Commission allocated "a specific advanced radio-frequency spectrum for the system to use" explains Mike Shulman, technical leader for Ford Research and Advanced Engineering. "That's a big deal, because spectrum is very valuable.
"When we started, our thinking was, 'Let's take a look at this and understand how it would work," says Shulman. "At first, we sent out small packets of data to see how it would be received at the other end, and were very encouraged by the results, so we began to build up more advanced applications."
The way it works, says Shulman, is that one intelligent-vehicle system sends out info to other vehicles – and even to traffic-signal systems – that say "here's where I am, here's where I'm going, here's how fast I'm going. And, at the same time, your vehicle is receiving similar messages from other vehicles all around you."
Currently, many vehicles are equipped with crash-avoidance technologies that rely on radar systems that are either situated in the front or back of the vehicle.
But the intelligent-vehicle technology has an advantage over radar, says Shulman, in that "it provides 360-degree coverage – it delivers much more information than radar, which is better at measuring distance and velocity. Plus, the cost is relatively low, because it's built off of existing WiFi and GPS technologies."
The system will also detect conditions in problematic situations, like along a curvy road, when a driver cannot visibly detect an oncoming car, or communicate to other drivers that there is black ice on the road.
Working in conjunction with other carmakers is a key, says John Capp, GM's director of safety innovation and active safety – and chairman of the CAMP consortium.
"Obviously, there are many different cars out on the roads, made by different manufacturers, so for this to work, we have to develop it together, to make sure that a General Motors vehicle can communicate with a Ford, or a Toyota can communicate with a Honda, and so on," says Capp.
When this technology first makes it into production models, "we'll have a situation where some models will have it, and some won't," says Capp. "So, at the beginning, it's going to be more of an alert-and-warning system – getting information to the driver so he can take whatever action he needs to in order to avoid a crash.
"Then, as it's introduced into more and more vehicles, the system will become more involved in electronically controlling the vehicle's steering, braking, and speed."
In an effort to throw a spotlight on the new technology, the carmakers will hold driving clinics this summer, to give consumers a "hands-on' experience with the vehicles.
"We're looking forward to that," says Capp. "We're eager to get people into these intelligent vehicles, so everyone can see them operate in a real-world situation, on real roads – and so that drivers can see how valuable this kind of safety technology can be."