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This rash of testing represents a changing approach to auto safety. Despite years of incremental efforts to make vehicles safer – air bags, antilock brakes, pretensioning seatbelts – the number of annual U.S. traffic fatalities has remained above 40,000 for a decade, partly because the total numbers of vehicles on roadways continues to increase. “We’ve kind of reached the end of the road with passive safety,” says Steve Speth, director of the Vehicle Safety Office at the Chrysler Group.

Now the emphasis is on using wireless technology to help drivers actively avoid accidents – especially at intersections, the site of 17 percent of vehicle fatalities. “Once we start connecting vehicles, we will see a reduction in the total number of fatalities,” says Peter Sweatman, director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute in Ann Arbor. “That really is the future direction of auto safety.”

The Federal Communications Commission has set aside a swath of radio bandwidth strictly for short-range communications on the nation’s roads. It’s an essential provision: cellular telephone networks do not establish connections fast enough.

Wireless auto safety still faces roadblocks, like questions about carmakers’ liability if, say, the technology doesn’t prevent a crash. But Ford, General Motors, DaimlerChrysler, and Nissan have linked up with the Michigan DOT to perform experiments like Motorola’s. And they’re joining with Toyota, BMW, and Volkswagen for collision avoidance tests on public roads. Some applications could be in cars soon; Ford, for example, plans to start tests in 2007 for possible production by 2011.

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