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‘Talking cars’ could prevent accidents before they happen

February 3, 2014 at 6:14 PM EDT
On some new car models, sensors can monitor outside surroundings and warn drivers of peril or kick in automatic braking. The Department Of Transportation is considering a mandate for all automakers to adopt this vehicle-to-vehicle technology. Gwen Ifill talks to Wall Street Journal reporter Dan Neil about how “talking cars” could improve safety on the roads but at the expense of drivers’ privacy.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: For years, carmakers have been adding advanced automated safety features to their increasingly high-tech vehicles. Now the federal government is considering turning some of those options into industry standards.

ACTOR: This is unreal.

LAURENCE FISHBURNE, actor: No, it’s very real.

GWEN IFILL: In a Super Bowl broadcast packed with car commercials, this Hyundai ad focused not on speed or style, but on how to avoid an accident. In it, an ever-attentive dad does his best to protect his son from a collision, including the perils of mixing teenaged hormones with learner’s permits.

NARRATOR: Remember when only dad could save the day? Auto emergency braking on the all new Genesis.

GWEN IFILL: In fact, automatic braking is becoming an option on models around the world. The vehicles use radar, video and sensors to monitor their surroundings, give early warnings to drivers and even engage the brakes.

NARRATOR: The technology may be hard to imagine, but why you would want it is not.

GWEN IFILL: Now Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx wants similar enhancements on all new vehicles.

TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY ANTHONY FOXX: We have the ability, through technology now, to develop a regime in which the safety advances actually kick in before an accident occurs, and we actually avoid the unfortunate event itself.

GWEN IFILL: Foxx says cars would use radio transponders, allowing vehicle-to-vehicle communication to relay critical information and, thus, revolutionize auto safety.

ANTHONY FOXX: We have 30,000 vehicle fatalities a year in the U.S., and the prospect of being able to cut, according to research, perhaps 70 percent to 80 percent of the collisions and accidents that are happening around the country.

GWEN IFILL: The department plans to propose the requirement before President Obama leaves office in early 2017.

Dan Neil is an auto columnist for The Wall Street Journal who has been following these developments and perhaps driving some of these cars.

Dan Neil, welcome.

DAN NEIL, The Wall Street Journal: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: So, what is that the government likely to propose or is considering here that would be different from what we experience now or have available to us now?

DAN NEIL: Well, what’s in play is the development of the intelligent highway system and vehicle system so that cars using sort of airplane like-transponders communicate with one another, anticipate each other’s movements and ideally stay out of each other’s way.

The government set aside a spectrum, an electronic spectrum for that purpose a couple of years ago, and the manufacturers will be researching how cars can best talk to each other. But it’s important to note that, for example, in the commercial trucking industry, transponders are a common thing.

And with these devices, carmakers and whoever else, the interested parties, whoever is creating the infrastructure around these vehicles will have very precise data on a car’s location, direction, speed, and that information will be shared among the vehicles on the road.

 

GWEN IFILL: When I — when I think about this, I feel like drivers will feel a sense of a loss of control, and that might be a disincentive for actually getting behind the wheel of one of these cars.

Are you taking the onus off the driver? Does it feel that way when you’re driving one of these cars?

DAN NEIL: I have been very surprised. The public doesn’t seem to mind the lessened driver workload in these cars with these increasingly sophisticated autonomous and semiautonomous systems.

For instance, lane keeping, this is active lane keeping. The car will stay between the lines. And, you know, a driver can do that, but it’s a routine road function, and the car can do it better with, as you mentioned in your lead-up, stereoscopic vision and various sensors.

So there doesn’t seem to be a concern among the driving public of a loss of these — of autonomy. And here is the other thing. It’s really important for an aging population to get ahold of this issue, because these technologies will extend the driving career of older Americans in such a way that it will be very beneficial.

You know, losing your driving privileges is really tough on old people. And this technology promises to keep people on the road and maintain their independence for a long time. That’s just one of many reasons why the government and the automakers are interested in it.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you this, Dan. Does it work if the government doesn’t mandate this in every vehicle, because if some vehicles are equipped with this, and others aren’t, does the idea come together?

DAN NEIL: Yes, this is an interesting issue, because there are actually two approaches to in. One, you might say the technology is independently autonomous.

Each vehicle has an array of sensors that can respond to everything it sees around it. These systems will eventually be programmed with vast archives of, you would say, algorithmic recognition. So they have never see anything they haven’t seen before. They respond quicker, better. Call that better than human.

The other way that you can do this is what the federal government is talking about now, which is a vehicle-to-vehicle, V-to-V or V-to-I, vehicle to infrastructure, regime. And in this way, vehicles will coordinate their movements and with the infrastructure.

What’s interesting about that is that especially in the mega-cities of Asia, managing traffic, that is, being able to platoon vehicles on highways where there is very little carrying capacity left, this is a problem that V-to-V and especially V-to-I can address.

GWEN IFILL: It sounds…

DAN NEIL: Yes, I’m sorry. Go ahead.

GWEN IFILL: I was just going to say, it sounds expensive, though. Are auto manufacturers prepared to do this?

DAN NEIL: Auto manufacturers love these technologies. They are a point of differentiation in sales. And, ultimately, if you do this right, if you electronically crash-proof automobiles, you can begin taking weight out of the vehicles.

And weight, mass is one of the things that drives fuel economy down. So you are going to have lighter vehicles that won’t have to be these big steel boxes to survive crashes. And they will become more fuel-efficient.

GWEN IFILL: Final question, briefly, it sounds like Big Brother might have better access now to your information. They know where you are going, where you are coming from, how fast you are going. Isn’t that a disincentive there?

DAN NEIL: Big Brother, more like Target and Wal-Mart and H&M. You know, when commercial interests have a good idea of where you are in your car, they can advertise to you, much like they do on the Internet. This is — the connected car and the connected Internet are going to have the same death of privacy issues.

GWEN IFILL: Oh, joy. Dan Neil, Wall Street Journal, thanks so much.

DAN NEIL: All right, thank you.