'Talking' smart cars begin year-long test aimed at accident reduction

University researchers put 3,000 vehicles on the road with smart communication devices

Researchers hope they can sharply reduce the number of car accidents by enabling vehicles to communicate with each other -- and they're putting the theory to the test in Ann Arbor, Mich.

On Tuesday, researchers at the University of Michigan launched a year-long test of what they're calling smart car technology. This project, according to the university, could reduce accidents involving unimpaired drivers by as much as 80%.

They installed wireless communication devices on about 3,000 vehicles, including passenger cars, commercial trucks and transit buses. The devices are enable the vehicles to share information, such as location, direction and speed, with each other, as well as with traffic lights and other road signals positioned at intersections, curves and highway sites throughout a test-pilot area in northeast Ann Arbor.

With the devices, drivers are alerted to potentially hazardous situations, such as a nearby vehicle unexpectedly braking, a sudden lane change or merging traffic, by a visual or audible warning in their vehicles.

"This is a game-changer for transportation," said Jim Sayer, program manager and associate research scientist at the university. "There are many safety and convenience applications to this, as well as applications related to mobility and sustainability."

Researchers at the University of Michigan aren't the only ones trying to create smarter cars.

Google, for instance, has been developing a self-driving car. Anthony Levandowski, head of Google's self-driving car project, said earlier this year the company would like to get autonomous cars on the road within the next decade.

In April, Google executives went to Detroit looking for partners in their effort.

The U.S. government's military research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has long backed efforts to create autonomous cars. DARPA has run autonomous car races, along with issuing a robotics challenge for researchers to build robots that can drive vehicles, use human tools and traverse rough terrain to assist in evacuation operations.

For this year's vehicle experiment in Michigan, researchers also hope to reduce carbon emissions and fuel emerging technology, as well as "new economy" start-ups.

"This is a big moment for automotive safety," said Ray LaHood, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, which is working on the smart-car project with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "This cutting-edge technology offers real promise for improving both the safety and efficiency of our roads."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at  @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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