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Ford Promises Wi-Fi Crash Avoidance by 2013 - 2011 DC Auto Show

January 2011 author photo


January 28, 2011

Perhaps anticipating the paralyzing effect of a heavy snow on the day before the Washington Auto Show, Ford previewed a new car-to-car communication technology that will help prevent crashes in a demonstration staged in the parking lot of RFK Stadium.

Ford used the Washington Auto Show to tout its development of this key safety advance, showing government regulators what the company can do and to work with them on setting standards for all carmakers so their systems interoperate. As part of that process Ford said it will contribute vehicles to the Department of Transportation's research clinics for the technology this summer.

The National Highway Traffic Administration plans to issue specific rules for using wi-fi signals to transmit information about cars to nearby cars in 2013, but the industry can't wait until then and will go forward with what they have before then, said Mike Shulman, technical leader of Ford Research and Advanced Engineering. NHTSA regulators observed the demonstration and discussed the technology with Ford's engineers.

The government will require all new cars transmit wi-fi signals indicating their position, direction and speed, but Ford, along with General Motors, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Audi, Hyundai and Kia, are on course to start providing the benefits of car-to-car communications sooner than that. NHTSA is expected to announce its regulations in 2013, but by that time Ford and the others may already be selling cars with the wi-fi crash avoidance technology built in.

Each company's application of the technology will differ, but they will all use the same wi-fi signal to share the same anonymous vehicle information to help prevent crashes.

As cars slid helplessly through red lights at intersections in the snow outside the Washington Convention Center where the show is held, they illustrated the application that expected to be the most beneficial: a warning of a possible collision at an intersection.

If cross-traffic always stopped at red lights at intersections this wouldn't be needed, but some drivers don't, or can't in the event of slippery roads, stop for red lights, and the resulting collisions contributed about a quarter of the annual highway fatalities in the U.S., around 9,000 deaths. Cars transmitting a wi-fi signal could warn one another that they are headed for a collision if neither car is stopping for an approaching intersection and flash a warning to drivers.

The same system would warn drivers about unseen hazards such as oncoming traffic in two-lane passing zones and stopped cars ahead that are blocked from view by other cars that are still moving. Once about 10 percent of cars on the road are equipped with the technology we should start seeing noticeable benefits, Shulman said.

To help get to that point he said he expects that aftermarket devices such as smart phones and portable GPS devices will incorporate the technology, letting existing cars communicate with the new ones.

Naturally drivers are concerned about broadcasting their speed to the world, but the data will be anonymous, with the identification changing every five minutes. "This is not for enforcement," Shulman assured.

The technology even has a green aspect. Intelligent traffic lights could tell cars when they are preparing to turn green, so cars with automatic engine stop/start could restart their engines before the light turns green, helping that fuel-saving technology to work even less intrusively than today.

DAN CARNEY is a veteran auto industry observer who has written for, Motor Trend, AutoWeek, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Better Homes and Gardens and other publications. He has authored two books, "Dodge Viper" and "Honda S2000" and is a juror for the North American Car of the Year award. Carney covers the industry from the increasingly strategic location of Washington, DC.

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Ford Promises Wi-Fi Crash Avoidance by 2013 - 2011 DC Auto Show - Autotrader