Traffic is moving fast and freely. You glance down at your phone—just for a second—and then a warning tone alerts you to slam on the brakes. When you look up, you see the rear of the car you nearly plowed into.
That’s the best-case scenario for new vehicle communication technologies that the U.S. Department of Transportation and eight automakers tested in Alameda, California, last week during the last six clinics designed to discover how ordinary drivers from across the United States react to cars that can talk to each other via Wi-Fi and warn drivers of impending collisions.
The DOT is studying whether such systems, known as vehicle-to-vehicle communication, or V2V, can reduce the number of accidents, save lives, and improve traffic flow. Depending on the test results, the agency could begin requiring that automakers install V2V systems in all new cars sometime this decade.
The clinic was held at Alameda Point, a decommissioned naval air station across the bay from San Francisco, where 120 men and women, 20 to 70 years old, got behind the wheels of new cars outfitted with the latest in vehicle-to-vehicle communication and safety gear.
Drivers were accompanied by an observer as they drove in an empty parking lot through a course of traffic cones, where they encountered other cars driven by DOT personnel looking to create the kinds of situations that often lead to traffic accidents—driving in another vehicle’s blind spot, for example, or braking suddenly. An experimental system in each car delivered alerts and warnings by means of alarms, visual effects, and even vibrations in the seat to warn drivers that another car was nearby. The cars also communicated with one another using wireless radios. Ten times each second, every car broadcast 11 data points, including its GPS location, rate of acceleration, brake status, steering-wheel angle, and speed.
Testers watched as the drivers—none of whom had been exposed to V2V before—reacted to bells, beeps, and flashing lights. Later, they interviewed them to find out which features seemed useful.
“These questions try to address the acceptability of the technology,” says Nady Boules, director of General Motors’ Electrical & Controls Integration Lab. “We would like to evaluate different geographical regions and driver characteristics. For example, the clinic in California targeted people who ‘think green’ and like technology in cars. The one in Texas targeted those who would typically use pickup trucks and SUVs.”