The Future of Connected Cars

MSNBC: Are we there yet?

In the near future, the answer may come from a surprising source: Your car.

Previously the province of cheesy TV shows — ah, “Knight Rider,” we hardly knew ye — and a handful of luxury cars, the idea of intelligent automobiles is moving into the mainstream.

“There’s a lot of interest from all aspects of the community,” said Wes Sherwood, spokesperson for the Ford Motor Co. “Business leaders, politicians, the general public — people are starting to get their heads around this.”

“This” is everything from Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) — in-car technology that automatically adjusts your cruise control or provides warnings when you drift out of your lane — to so-called “connected cars” that will be able to “talk” to each other and surrounding infrastructure.

“ADAS has been available for years in high-end luxury cars,” said David Alexander, principal analyst, automotive technology, for ABI Research. “All of a sudden, this year, it’s becoming available on a much wider variety of cars.”

Examples include the 2012 Ford Focus, which features active parking assistance, and 2012 Mercedes B-Class vehicles, which will boast S-Class features, including blind-spot detection and collision-prevention assistance.

As such systems become more prevalent, they’ll also play a role in the development of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), in which cars actually communicate with other vehicles, traffic lights, railroad crossings, etc.

Although practical systems are still years off, the technology is already being tested. This month, the Department of Transportation (DOT) is conducting clinics in six cities to see how drivers in specially equipped cars respond to in-car warnings regarding potential collisions, “do not pass” alerts and other hazards. The agency is also holding a public meeting/webinar on the subject in Chicago on August 2–3.

The long-term benefits could be significant. “Connected vehicle technology has the potential to address 81 percent of all unimpaired-driver-related crashes,” said Peter Appel, administrator of DOT’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration, in a statement.

On the other hand, the prospect of people paying even less attention to the road than they do now carries its own risks. Just as 4WD and other technologies have given drivers unwarranted confidence in sketchy conditions, intelligent cars may also encourage more stupid behavior.

“These are assistance systems to help the driver,” said Alexander. “They’re looking around, talking to other cars, but they’re not there to allow the driver to text his friends or check his Facebook page. That’s always the danger.”

That, of course, is another issue entirely, and one that may require more intelligence than some drivers will ever be able to muster. In the meantime, somewhere between the self-driving cars currently under development and a glorious Jetsonesque future, there’s no doubt the road ahead will be an increasingly connected one.

“If your smart car is connected to smart businesses and smart infrastructure,” said Sherwood, “then you can start dreaming up almost endless scenarios of how you can make driving more efficient and more enjoyable.”


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