A Transfer of Power

We can’t talk to each other while driving, but our cars can!

Andy Bolig - February 02, 2012 10:00 AM


“One of the crazier offerings was a system that enables a vehicle to help with trip and day scheduling, from choosing a route to reserving a parking space.”

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The recent National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) request for the first-ever nationwide ban on driver use of portable electronic devices (PEDs) while operating a motor vehicle carried headlines a while back.

Asking for an utter and complete zero-tolerance ruling to eliminate any use of phones, texting, etc. seemed oddly opposite to a recent release from the U.S. Department of Transportation, touting awards for a federally-funded research into making our cars better communicate with each other, even though we can’t.

Rather than ringing the “Big-Government” bell like seems to be the trend nowadays, I’d much rather speak in terms of personal responsibility and being attentive to what you are doing — especially when driving, although that very same virtue is beneficial in many other areas of our lives. The problem lies with issuing a blanket statement that eliminates all types and uses. How does that affect the use of in-car navigation? Do we need a full-time co-pilot now? GM already has the legal-eze welcome screen in their sat/nav systems. If using the phone (smart or otherwise) is dangerous, then how long will it be before changing radio stations is deemed unsafe? You have to take your eyes off of the road to do that; talking only uses your ears, not your eyes. Over the years, I’ve found my way around a keyboard or two, but I’ll admit that I’m not a “txt-er”. I’d hate to have to try and whittle out a conversation on that little box o’ type AND navigate a vehicle. That WOULD be dangerous for me!

Calling for a complete ban on any electronic communication for the driver seems a little too drastic for me. I mean, if a driver can’t hold a conversation on the phone, then, how safe is it for someone to be driving and speaking with a passenger, or heaven forbid, someone in the back seat? The NTSB has issued examples of accidents that have occurred because someone wasn’t being attentive. It happens in all modes of transportation. But, just because some kid tries to jump off of the swing-set, is that reason enough cut all the chains on the swings? Maybe the laws that he needs to understand a little better are the ones that have been instituted since the beginning of time – physics. If everyone else understands and navigates them successfully, why should their neighborhood be “dumbed-down,” instead of educating the one that needs educating!

In the light of this recent request for a no-phone-zone behind every wheel, the fact that the USDOT is giving out awards for various ways that our vehicles could communicate with each other in the future just seemed out of place. The idea for the competition is seeking ideas for using wireless technology to enable vehicles to communicate with each other. The winning ideas may be incorporated into ongoing research using technology to improve vehicle safety and transportation operations.

Some of the perceived benefits touted by the DOT (enough to garner an award) are a real-time accident awareness system that accelerates emergency response and assists with traffic management. (Well, other drivers could call —oh, forgot, according to the NTSB, they can’t.)

Another benefit of car cross-talk is when a driver is alerted to an upcoming intersection with frequent rear-end accidents and has the option of choosing an alternate route. Anyone who has competed for dominance in choosing a route against the term, “Make first possible U-turn!” should run in fear of this very thought.

Another “winner” according to the DOT is a “credits” system. This is an automated system for trading pollution credits among vehicles, in which the level of pollution allowed per vehicle is capped and credits are given to less-polluting vehicles. A low emissions vehicle can accumulate credits that it automatically sells to a higher emissions vehicle. Question: who determines when to buy and when to sell? The car? Sounds like a WOT tax to me.

There’s also a system whereas a position-estimating system blends inputs from GPS and dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) links in roadways to improve location measurements. A GPS-equipped vehicle would be able to determine its location to within one meter by communicating with devices embedded in the roads. If your car can “determine its location”, who else can?

One of the crazier offerings was a system that enables a vehicle to help with trip and day scheduling, from choosing a route to reserving a parking space. This one might sell well with the tech-savvy, but I see a long wait before this stuff starts suggesting the best way to navigate around the farm or helping you with your scheduling in the back roads of America. Better yet, rather than trying to argue with some Lola-voice deep in the dashboard of my ride, just let me look at my Daytimer (electronic or otherwise) and let me call ahead if there’s a need to do so.

Interestingly, while NHTSA doesn’t trust US to be able to handle these menial chores and focus on driving, they are wholeheartedly behind allowing these technologies to do them for us. “Advanced vehicle safety technologies hold the promise of significantly reducing traffic fatalities and injuries,” said NHTSA administrator David Strickland. “As NHTSA continues to evaluate the potential for these systems, we’re pleased to see so many bright and creative minds working on ways to move traffic safety into the 21st century.”

Let’s just hope that they don’t need to speak to each other while driving!