Take three fairly common technological advances -- Wi-Fi, smartphones and GPS navigation systems -- put elements of all three into a car, and bam -- it's new technology again.
Intelligent vehicles that "talk" to each other and help drivers avoid crashes and congestion are so new, in fact, that they're not expected to be publicly available until 2013 or later. But Ford Motor Company officials demonstrated the technology Wednesday by maneuvering four prototype vehicles around the northwest corner of the Yorktown Center parking lot in Lombard.
"This is a combination of dedicated short-range communication and GPS in the vehicle," said Paul Mascarenas, Ford's chief technology officer. "In a very urban type of environment is where we think we can get the most benefit."
Ford made a stop in the Chicago area to showcase the prototypes because the region ranks worst among the nation's urban areas in terms time and fuel costs commuters waste each year -- 70 hours and $1,738, according to the 2010 Urban Mobility Report by the Texas Transportation Institute.
Intelligent vehicles that can communicate with each other are being designed to promote safety, ease traffic and give drivers some convenience features such as automatic parallel parking, Mascarenas said.
Active safety features made possible by vehicle-to-vehicle communication -- like audio and visual warnings when a vehicle enters a driver's blind spot -- could help prevent as many as 4.3 million crashes involving non-impaired drivers that are reported nationwide to police each year, according to a 2010 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Ford's intelligent vehicles won't automatically hit the brakes when they sense a hazard; braking remains the driver's responsibility. But Pete Hardigan, manager in Ford's automotive safety office, said the warnings will keep drivers alert and give more time to avoid hazards they can't see, such as a car running a red light about to cross their path.
"Drowsy driving is a big concern," Hardigan said. "This helps keep cognitive engagement with the drivers."
Ford researchers haven't yet determined if different sounds or lights will be used to alert drivers to various roadside dangers, or if the same warning tones will be used.
"That human/machine interface is one of the things we're challenged with," Hardigan said.
But they're testing 65 prototype vehicles this year and hundreds next year, Hardigan said. And when intelligent, "talking" vehicles are rolled out to the public, the more people who drive them, the safer and less congested roads will be, Ford officials said.
"It can't communicate with cars that don't have this technology," Mascarenas said. "But many car manufacturers are working on vehicle-to-vehicle communication."