High-tech cars that prevent crashes coming to Tampa

Researchers at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (WFLA) — If all goes as planned, a year from now, Tampa streets and the Leroy Selmon Expressway will become the nation’s next proving ground for satellite-guided crash prevention technology.

A $2.4 million federal grant was recently awarded to the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority for the project.

Auto safety engineers say “connected cars” will use V2V (vehicle to vehicle) technology that enables vehicles to “talk” to each other and to send hazard warnings to drivers with audio and visual alerts. Engineers say connected cars will reduce collisions, injuries and traffic jams.

“This will save lives,” said Debbie Bezzina, a safety researcher with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI). Bezzina was at the center of a federally-funded pilot program employing the same connected car technology in 3000 vehicles in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 2012.

High tech cars are tested on this secret track in Michigan.
High tech cars are tested on this secret track in Michigan.

 

LEARN MORE about Tampa’s connected vehicles

 

Researchers also rigged traffic signals and roadway sensors to wirelessly communicate with vehicles as part of the Ann Arbor experiment. That variation of connected technology is sometimes called “V2I” or “V2X.”

“I think the safety benefits are going to outweigh any cost associated with the installation,” Bezzina said. Bezzina tells 8 on Your Side there was only one crash involving a connected vehicle during the entire 12-month deployment of cars, trucks, buses and even a wired bicycle in Ann Arbor.

8 on Your Side recently traveled to Michigan for a preview of what the Tampa connected car experiment will look like. We experienced two rare demonstrations of this new technology that uses short range radio signals and GPS in cars to transmit speed, direction and location to other vehicles, as well as communicate with road sensors, traffic lights—even pedestrians and cyclists who may be in harm’s way.

“My equipped vehicle would say ‘Hey there’s a pedestrian out there’ and give me a warning,” said Bezzina during our test run.

Another sensor in UMTRI’s demonstration vehicle sent out visual and audible alarms when Bezzina approached a dangerous curve at excessive speed. “This is the worst curve in Ann Arbor,” Bezzina told us as she slowed for the bend, while audible and visual warnings alerted her that she was approaching at excessive speed.

The technology also has the potential of eliminating stop and go traffic, increasing fuel economy and taking the headaches out of daily commutes in heavy traffic. Connected car technology could advise drivers to maintain a set speed to catch all of the green lights or even change lights to green, to accommodate approaching motorists.

8 on Your Side also visited the highly-secretive research and development headquarters of General Motors in Warren, Michigan for a demonstration of connected car technology that GM plans to start building into production model Cadillac CTS vehicles starting in 2017.

That advancement will make GM the world’s first automaker to install V2V connected car technology in production line vehicles, a commitment that GM CEO Marry Barra announced a year ago.

“We’re going to start the ball rolling,” said John Capp, who is GM’s Director of Safety Engineering.

“It’s going to take some time but it’s a way to tell others we’re serious about it.”

Capp said while only Cadillac CTS models will be able to “talk” to each other initially, the idea is that any vehicle equipped with the same government-approved technology—no matter what the brand—will be able to seamlessly communicate hazard warnings, ranging from impending collisions to sudden braking to other vehicles.

During our visit to GM, safety researcher Don Grimm took us out for a test drive to demonstrate how V2V sends out hazard alerts to prevent potentially fatal collisions at blind intersections.

He also showed us how V2V warns drivers of sudden braking ahead by other motorists that might not be visible because of hills, vehicles and other obstructions. “There’s a potential to improve safety by so much,” Grimm said. ”We have a lot more time to respond if there is a hazard ahead.”

“We’re now entering a whole new era where we have the technology to start avoiding crashes in the first place,” Capp said. “It will take a couple decades quite honestly before the penetration gets really, really high but the benefit that this technology has is worth it.”

Eventually, the government will require all new vehicles to have V2V equipment just as they must now have seat belts and airbags. Early estimates project V2V to cost only around $400 per vehicle—about the same as a car radio and far less than most other safety equipment.

Safety researchers envision manufacturers selling aftermarket V2V equipment for older cars and eventually building it into cell phones for use by pedestrians and cyclists.

“You can take that a step further and take your cell phone and dock it into your vehicle,” said UMTRI’s Bezzina. “Now you have an aftermarket-type device and your vehicle is now equipped.”

GM’s Capp insists the talking car technology has the potential to impact 80 percent of all vehicle collisions by reducing the severity of them or eliminating them altogether, because of the equipment’s early-warning capability.

“We’re really looking forward to the day when we can avoid crashes with it,” Capp said.

One example of how V2V might save lives can be found in the fatal pileup of 70 vehicles on a foggy stretch of I-4 near Lakeland on January 9, 2008. Four people died that day when cars and trucks drove blindly into a fog bank that created carnage without warning.

“Vehicles that are seeing those situations can send messages back to vehicles that are half a mile behind,” said Capp. “And help send the proper messages to help them avoid getting into these types of pile-ups.”

As the technology progresses—and more vehicles are equipped with it—engineers will start wiring roadways and traffic signals with transmitters and receivers, so that vehicles can also interact with traffic infrastructure.

UMTRI has already tested such devices in Ann Arbor as part of its pilot deployment in 2012 and is now moving into a new phase of that research. Cars can see when traffic lights are about to turn red or green and when they’re driving too fast around hazardous curves. Engineers are even testing sensors build into roads that warn approaching motorists of dangerous ice conditions.

There will of course be challenges. V2V is of limited benefit until a “critical mass” of vehicles are using it. There are some concerns about computer hacking, the added cost of the equipment for motorists and taxpayers and the confusion factor for motorists– some of whom already need dealer training to use the ever increasing number of electronic gadgets already built into new cars.

Automotive safety researchers and engineers insist it’s not a matter of whether V2V is coming, only when. The also consider it a necessary bridge to the next big thing in automotive technology—driverless vehicles.

Connected car technology can also lead to a day where sea tbelts, airbags, heavy steel construction and collapsible bumpers become relics of the past.

“We won’t have to necessarily have all of those crashworthiness things built into vehicles if we don’t have these crashes,” Capp said.

If all goes as planned, motorists in Tampa Bay will begin seeing connected car technology in late 2016. That’s when the connected car and wired roadway experiment is supposed to evolve from the planning stage to implementation and Tampa becomes one of just three test areas across the nation—the other two are located in Ann Arbor and New York.

Around that same time, GM’s V2V-equipped 2017 Cadillac CTS models will also start hitting the streets nationwide.

Auto safety researchers insist connected car technology is about to make roads and highways a whole lot safer.

“No question about that at all,” said Bezzina. ”I’m excited for Tampa.”

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