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Editorial: Car-to-car communication holds promise of making roads safer

Feb. 05, 2014 @ 10:07 PM

The prospect of significantly reducing the nation’s number of traffic fatalities is a tantalizing thought, and the government believes it and the auto industry are headed down that road.

It’s a route worth taking, but let’s hope they arrive their safely.

As spelled out this week by federal transportation officials, the path they are pursuing for safer roads uses developing technology that will allow vehicles to communicate with each other. They also indicated that the government is strongly considering requiring automakers to use the technology within the next few years.

The technology they want deployed involves using a radio signal that would continually transmit a vehicle’s position, course, speed and other information. Cars and light trucks similarly equipped   would receive the same information back from other cars, and a vehicle’s computer would alert its driver to an impending collision. As officials detailed it during a press conference on Monday, the alerts could be in the form of a flashing message, an audible warning, or a driver’s seat that rumbles. Some systems might even automatically brake to avoid an accident if manufacturers choose to include that option, The Associated Press reported.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and automakers have been collaborating on the technology for the past decade.

So just how dramatic an effect could this technology have? The NHTSA estimated vehicle-to-vehicle communications could prevent up to 80 percent of accidents that don’t involve drunken drivers or mechanical failure. If that turns out to be accurate, then approximately half of the 33,500 traffic fatalities recorded in the nation during 2012 might have been avoided.

Of course, that kind of reduction wouldn’t be gained all at once. If the technology is eventually required, it would take several years before vehicles equipped with it would represent a significant portion of the vehicles on the nation’s roads and highways. Thus the benefits would be felt gradually.

Most important, of course, is perfecting the technology expected to be part of this life-saving initiative and making it affordable. Spokesmen for automobile manufacturers say the industry is enthused about vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology, but stress there are many significant technical, security  and privacy questions to address still. And the cost is an unknown. Government officials declined to give an estimate this week, but the Intelligent Transportation Society of America estimated it could be about $100 to $200 per vehicle. That seems a low-ball estimate, but if the actual cost turns out to be anywhere close to that, it would seem a worthwhile investment.

The attitude of motorists also will have to be considered. While the life-saving benefits of the new technology seem logical, some drivers may be unsettled by the prospect that control of their vehicles is diminished. The technology shouldn’t be made overly restrictive, or else it may lead to other safety problems.

But those are issues yet to be worked out. The vehicle-to-vehicle communication initiative holds promise of vastly curtailing highway deaths, and the government and auto industry should pursue it aggressively.

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