STREET SMARTS

David Grimm reports on technological advances that may improve driving safety:

The technologies are being developed at university, industry, and government labs through the “intelligent vehicle initiative,” part of a U.S. Department of Transportation program that will spend $1.7 billion over the next six years to shift the focus of highway safety from minimizing injury to preventing accidents altogether. “We need to help drivers stop making mistakes,” says IVI program manager Ray Resendes, who cites driver error as the leading cause of crashes that kill over 40,000 people a year.

The first IVI systems allow your car to sense its surroundings. Adaptive cruise control, already available in luxury sedans like the Jaguar XK-R and the Infiniti Q45, uses radar or laser sensors to maintain a safe distance from surrounding traffic–automatically slowing the car down for gridlock, even if you have the cruise set for warp 5. By the end of the decade, cameras mounted in the rearview mirror will monitor the road and your eyelids, sounding an alarm if you are in danger of drifting off to sleep or just drifting out of your lane.

Looking for trouble. Other technologies will aid navigation. Several firms are preparing high-resolution digital maps of every road in the nation. Now available for a few metropolitan areas, the maps will be updated with real-time traffic and weather data and will work with the car’s global positioning system to plot your fastest and safest route to work. Should you hit bad weather anyway, infrared detectors will “see” through the blackest of nights or the whitest of whiteouts and show an “enhanced visibility” image on a ceiling-mounted monitor–already an option on the Hummer. Both technologies should be widely available in five years.

Smart cars will get smart roads to drive on. Leading the way are intelligent intersections, which will allow cars and roads to talk to each other via short-range radio signals. Making a blind left turn? A throbbing dashboard icon will warn you if other vehicles are coming. Don’t notice a stoplight? The intersection might hit the brakes for you. But don’t get overconfident yet. The first intersections won’t get smart until 2006.

Transportation researchers are also exploring ways to “educate” roads through nanotechnology–molecular-scale engineering. The Federal Highway Administration is eyeing a collaboration with NASA, which is developing chainlike molecules that can reassemble after being separated. These nanopolymers could allow roads to repair themselves when they develop cracks and potholes. Also in the works are computerlike nanosensors. Embedded in roads by the billions, they could monitor traffic, sense accidents, and detect structural damage, turning ordinary roads into true information superhighways.

This all sounds pretty cool. I’d definitely love to have GPS technology in the car to help navigate in strange cities, although I’m not willing to pay the current $2000 price tag.

But the obvious question arises as to whether these devices will make drivers less attentive and/or whether sudden failures in the technology will be dangerous:

Will all this new technology make drivers dangerously passive? Resendes doesn’t think so. “You are giving a lot of responsibility over to your car,” he admits, but it’s no different from placing your trust in air bags or antilock brakes. In fact, Resendes believes that by warning against unsafe behavior, the new systems may improve driving habits. “[These technologies] are designed to prevent crashes,” he says, “but ultimately they may also create better drivers.”

I’m a bit skeptical but, on the other hand, anyone who’s driven in traffic knows how bad the human drivers are doing. This could well be a good thing.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Paul says:

    I’d definitely love to have GPS technology in the car to help navigate in strange cities, although I’m not willing to pay the current $2000 price tag

    Ya don’t say what price tag is acceptable but you might want to look around again. These units have dropped dramatically. One of my customers had one installed and it about 700 (+/- 100)

    I have a phenomenal hand held GPS with mapping that was only like 300ish. I bought it because I needed the GPS so I could quit paying survey companies but the mapping was far more useful than I expected.

    For what it is worth.

    P

  2. James Joyner says:

    Paul,

    Thanks. I’d consider spending that kind of money for one, but from what I’ve seen they’re not great for driving. The factory-installed ones have a big screen mounted on the dashboard and usually audible instructions as well. If I’ve got to have it one the passenger seat and take my eyes off the road, I might as well just use a map–they’re cheaper.