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Safety Tech We Should Have Already

Safety Tech We Should Have Already

Vehicle-to-vehicle technology should be made available as soon as possible, because it seems almost silly to be having an argument over providing more Wi-Fi access versus saving human lives. 

About a decade ago I was given a demonstration of vehicle-to-vehicle technology at General Motors. I was invited to take the wheel of a Cadillac and try to crash it into another Cadillac parked several hundred meters away on a big open skid pad.

The engineer in the car instructed me to get up to highway speed. As we approached the parked Cadillac he barked out, “Don’t lift!”

I aimed right at the parked car and kept my foot on the throttle. Miraculously, the Cadillac I was driving started braking by itself. It came to a complete stop about a meter from the parked car, even though my foot still was on the accelerator and I never touched the brakes.

That was 10 years ago. In the next 10, we’re going to see a significant drop in traffic smash ups thanks to V2V technology. And we’ll see automakers shift away from bulking up the body structure and adding more air bags, to installing technology that will avoid accidents in the first place. That could save tens of thousands of lives and prevent well over a million injuries. But here’s the bad news: it should already be here.

Over a decade ago I had the honor of moderating a panel at the SAE World Congress on automotive safety. The panel comprised about eight of the world’s leading automotive safety experts. In the course of our discussions a comment by the head of safety at BMW still stays with me.

“We should stop investing in passive safety today and put all our efforts into developing active safety,” he told the audience. The rest of the panel pretty much agreed. They knew there were far bigger gains to be made by preventing accidents from happening in the first place than from trying to make cars stronger in case of a crash.

And yet, this technology is not coming fast enough. It was around 2005 when those GM engineers gave me that V2V safety demonstration with the Cadillacs. When I asked them when the technology could go into production they told me it would be ready by 2012. And they said it would only cost about $100, since it mainly involved adding GPS and Wi-Fi to a car. Obviously that date came and went and we’re still several years away from getting this technology.

One reason for the delay was the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

The bankruptcies at GM and Chrysler, the collapse of several major suppliers and big budget cuts all around undoubtedly slowed development. But there’s another reason: a lack of focus.

 The latest crash standards from the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. mostly concentrate on new impact tests, better crash dummies, and friendlier front-end designs less likely to injure pedestrians.

And the U.S. Dept. of Transportation just announced new initiatives to catch safety defects early and protect vehicle owners from cybersecurity risks.  

New government standards also reward automakers who install automated braking systems. And while automated braking is a solid step forward, it’s a radar based system that cannot see around corners or anticipate that someone is about to run a red light.

Vehicle-to-vehicle technology can easily handle all that. In fact, V2Vcan even detect most pedestrians who blindly step into traffic by locating them via their mobile phones. From a safety standpoint V2V is transformative technology.

But V2V relies on the 5.9 gigahertz wireless spectrum to enable cars to communicate with each other. And it turns out that the telecommunications industry also wants to get its hands on that spectrum. It sees huge revenue potential because that will allow it to offer more Wi-Fi access.

So far, the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates these things, is looking far more favorably to the telecoms than to the automotive industry. Or, to put it another way, the telecoms have a much more effective lobbying effort underway.

Strangely, I have never heard any automotive CEO, the DOT Secretary, nor the administrator of NHTSA, say anything about this big spectrum fight. They should be out beating the war drums. Despite their commitments to improving safety, they’re sticking to the tried and true. So instead of transformative technology we get better crash dummies and softer front ends.

Vehicle-to-vehicle technology could be the greatest automotive safety technology ever devised. It should be made available as soon as possible, because it seems almost silly to have an argument over providing more Wi-Fi access versus saving human lives. 

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