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Car Talk

You’re late. You hurry into your car, belt yourself in and announce in a clear and commanding tone: “Take me to the golf course!” Sorry, still no chauffeur—unless you count the voice-activated controller built into the dashboard. It’ll be doing the driving, and as you relax and check the greens’ condition on the touchscreen, the car guides itself, delivering you just before tee time.

This scene isn’t from The Jetsons. Automakers, policymakers and traffic safety researchers have already demonstrated ways that cars can drive themselves without crashing. Now, the first critical steps toward making such a vision reality are taking shape. This year, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) will begin installing radios at traffic signals along a five-mile stretch of Michigan road in a congested suburb of Detroit. The goal? Eventually, the radios will communicate with properly equipped approaching cars, and alert them of possible collisions.

Meanwhile, the DOT is studying the potential of cars’ communicating wirelessly, not just with the traffic infrastructure but also with each other. Advances such as these are all part of the big-picture dream of autonomous driving. “We are not talking very far into the future,” says Nady Boules, director of the electrical and controls integration research lab for General Motors Global Research and Development. “This is actually in sight.”

Older but safer

Within the coming decade, these “accident-proof” technologies will make the road experience far safer. “We expect to get to the position where cars refuse to have accidents, no matter how hard the driver tries,” says Ralph Robinson, who runs the intelligent transportation systems office at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

That’s good news for older drivers concerned about diminishing eyesight and reaction time forcing them to give up their car keys. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, drivers 65 and older accounted for 14 percent of licensed drivers in 1999, but aging boomers will drive that number to an estimated 18 percent in 2020 and 22 percent in 2030. And given the independence and freedom that goes along with driving, boomers won’t want to budge from the driver’s seat anytime soon.

“We expect to see them remaining mobile in their cars for a very long time,” says Joseph Coughlin, director of MIT’s AgeLab, as well as the DOT’s New England University Transportation Center, also at MIT. He says the trend in future car technology is moving from merely protecting occupants in a crash to avoiding collisions altogether. Here’s a peek at some technologies on the horizon that will help keep older drivers on the road longer—and more safely.

Automated lane centering and lane changing

Technologically speaking, this one is well within reach. Mount a forward-looking camera that sees lane markings, and translate the visual data into electric steering inputs that keep your vehicle in its lane. GM’s Boules expects this on cars within the next five years, along with automatic lane changing, which uses radar to ensure it’s safe before your car moves over. Once lane-changing technology is perfected, Boules says, it will represent a tangible leap toward autonomous driving.

Car-to-traffic signal chatting

The Michigan project of equipping traffic signals with radios is another important link in the crash-avoidance strategy. The idea, says Ford Motor Co. researcher Mike Shulman, is for traffic signals to speak directly to your car to forecast trouble. For example, if you’re approaching an intersection with a green light but the car in the cross street is ready to run the light, the system could alert both vehicles to avert a collision. According to the IIHS, this would be especially important for anyone over 70, because 40 percent of the fatal collisions among that age group occur at intersections (compared with 23 percent of 35-to-54-year-olds in the same situation).

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