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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).

Car-to-car chat

Perhaps the biggest revolution under way is enabling cars to talk to one another, like fish traveling in a school. This communication technology would make it possible for cars to move along both quickly and safely. Cars that already communicate with drivers to warn of potentially dangerous situations, using adaptive cruise control and blind-spot alerts, only involve one-way communication. The next step is vehicle-to-vehicle communication, where messages are sent wirelessly from one car to another, using dedicated short-range radios (similar to Wi-Fi but a different frequency). The DOT calls it IntelliDrive, and has invested $128 million in the technology thus far, and has another $49 million designated for the project.

Cars send signals back and forth, letting each other know of their position, speed and whether they’re braking. Shulman explains that your car would act as “a vigilant passenger,” warning the driver of potentially dangerous situations and even applying the brakes when necessary. If a car is about to turn quickly in front of you and you don’t see it, your car would detect it and respond accordingly. “If you don’t act quickly enough to stop, it can stop you,” says Scott Belcher, president and CEO of Intelligent Transportation Society of America in Washington.

Enhanced-vision system

When eyesight begins to diminish, one of the first aspects to erode is peripheral vision. General Motors is working on a transparent windshield display of what you should be seeing as you drive. Its most dramatic application would be in fog, when an infrared camera could detect unseen objects and outline them on your windshield—like a fighter pilot with a target on the shield of his helmet. Due in eight to 10 years, the technology could also highlight threats you may miss, like a bicyclist or pedestrian. “This is augmenting reality and enhancing information in the outside world,” says Thomas Seder, lab group manager for Human Machine Interface at General Motors Research and Development.

Personalized dashboard

In about 10 years, you’ll be able to customize your dashboard. Imagine 20 square inches of glass where you drag and drop your favorite gadgets, colors and fonts where you like. MIT AgeLab’s Coughlin says you’ll be able to make the font settings larger, so the display is easier to read, and choose the color and lighting that make displays more visible. Different drivers will be able to hop in and switch the entire look with a fingertip.

Car therapy

Within five years, your car will take on the role of doctor, assessing your physical and mental health, and then provide necessary remedies. “We’ve all talked about the backseat driver,” says Coughlin. “The backseat driver will move forward and will be the car” itself.

The vehicle, he explains, will serve as a platform to detect how you’re feeling. If you’re stressed or distracted, for example, the car could intervene to improve your mood and make you more aware of the road. Over time, baseline data could be used to alert you when your behavior verges from the norm—something you might not even notice. A camera on the dashboard will track pupil movement to sense fatigue, emitting an aroma of, say, vanilla to perk you up. The car will also measure your pulse to diagnose your stress level. If it’s high, you may be in for an on-the-go seat massage.

Full autopilot

It’ll take a clever combination of cameras, radios, radar, GPS and a host of software solutions before drivers can entirely hand over control of the car to automation. It’s clearly possible, though, as demonstrated—on a small scale—through the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge, during which several automatic cars successfully navigated a mock city on an abandoned airbase.  

When the technology is perfected, a car would even be able to valet itself. It would drop you at your destination, go find parking, and then come back to collect you when you call for it.

The deluxe version is at least 10 and probably more like 25 years away. Ralph Robinson of the University of Michigan says two big challenges are getting enough cars equipped with the appropriate wireless communication devices, and liability: Who gets sued if an automated car runs into another one that’s supposedly accident-proof? Coughlin added that consumer acceptance might be difficult. “If you spend $30,000 on your vehicle, you’re unlikely to want to relinquish control or give up the thrill of driving,” he says.

Then again, it may be better than giving up the keys.

Julie Halpert, who has covered the car industry for two decades, lives and drives in Michigan.