On a cloudy San Francisco day, a Ford Explorer followed two Ford Fiestas. The lead Fiesta slammed on its brakes, and before the second Fiesta reacted, warning lights went off in the Explorer, alerting the driver to the situation ahead.
The Explorer's apparent precognition was born of technology, a combination of Wi-Fi and GPS. The lead Fiesta used this technology to tell the Explorer that its driver had slammed on the brakes. The Explorer received this information before the driver of the second Fiesta in the lineup could react, and dutifully used warning lights and sounds to tell its driver of the problem.
Ford demonstrated its vehicle-to-vehicle technology in a parking lot, using three specially equipped vehicles. Another test had one of the Fiestas stopped up ahead, mimicking a stalled car. The second Fiesta drove toward it with the Explorer following. As the driver of the second Fiesta changed lanes to avoid the stalled car, the warning lights went off in the Explorer, alerting its driver to the stalled car ahead.
Another test had the Explorer entering a blind intersection as one of the Fiestas drove across its path. Again, the warning lights alerted the Explorer driver to a hazard ahead. The same would apply if a car ran a red light as the Explorer was crossing on the green.
Ford didn't invent this technology. It is part of a larger initiative involving multiple car companies and the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Each demonstration car is equipped with GPS and a Wi-Fi transceiver. The car broadcasts its status, and receives similar status updates from other cars around it. When the car's computer shows an impending collision, it alerts the driver, who can then take appropriate action (ideally). This V2V technology can also be wired into a car's brakes or even steering, causing the car to initiate appropriate evasive action.
To show how refined this technology has become, one of Ford's demonstrations involved a car stalled in the lane next to the one in which the Explorer was traveling. Although the Explorer passed within 6 feet of the stalled car, no alert was issued, as the computer rightly deemed that there was no threat of a collision.
The GPS chips used by Ford were no different than those in common use today in navigation devices and in phones. The accuracy has gotten down to about 3 feet. The Wi-Fi for this equipment operated on a band specified for vehicle communication, using a new standard called 802.11p. It was designed to be robust enough for vehicular use.
At the demonstration, Ford Technical Lead for V2V Mike Shulman pointed out that seven bands have been allotted for the technology. The system being demonstrated only needed one band, leaving excess room that could be used for emergency vehicles and wireless toll collection.
The hardware used for V2V is all off-the-shelf at this point, but the V2V standard needs to be solidified. And unlike radar- and camera-based active safety systems, V2V is only effective if the majority of the cars on the road are equipped with the hardware.
The NHTSA expects to begin writing regulations for V2V technology in 2013, and Shulman said he believes it will take about five years to implement. Along with new cars incorporating the technology, older cars will need to be retrofitted. Given the potential of V2V technology to drastically reduce collisions, the NHTSA is likely to mandate its implementation.
In its demonstration, Ford showed that the technology is already well on its way.