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Next step may be cars built to avoid crashes

Communication systems promise new era in safety

US transportation officials are considering requiring vehicle-to-vehicle communications systems, which would be compatible with current early-warning sensors, in all cars. Susan Walsh/Associated Press/File 2012

WASHINGTON — Your car might see a deadly crash coming even if you don’t, the government says, indicating it will require automakers to equip new vehicles with technology that lets cars warn each other if they’re plunging toward peril.

The action, still some years off, has ‘‘game-changing potential’’ to cut collisions, deaths, and injuries, federal transportation officials said at a news conference Monday.

A radio signal would continually transmit a vehicle’s position, heading, speed, and other information. Cars and light trucks would receive the same information back from other cars, and a vehicle’s computer would alert its driver to an impending collision. Alerts could be 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.

Your car would ‘‘see’’ when another car or truck equipped with the same technology was about to run a red light, even if that vehicle was hidden around a corner. Your car would also know when a car several vehicles ahead had made a sudden stop, even before you saw brake lights. The technology works up to about 300 yards.

If communities choose to invest in the technology, roadways and traffic lights could start talking to cars, too, sending warnings of traffic congestion or road hazards in time for drivers to take a detour.

The technology is separate from automated safety features using sensors and radar that are already being built into some high-end vehicles and which are seen as the basis for future self-driving cars. But government and industry officials see the two technologies as compatible. If continuous conversations between cars make driving safer, then self-driving cars will become safer, as well.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has been working with automakers on the technology for the past decade, estimates vehicle-to-vehicle communications could prevent up to 80 percent of accidents that don’t involve drunken drivers or mechanical failure.


Crashes involving a driver with a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher accounted for nearly a third of the 33,500 traffic fatalities in the United States in 2012, according to the safety agency.

The technology represents the start of a new era in which the focus is ‘‘to prevent crashes in the first place,’’ as compared with previous efforts to ensure accidents are survivable, said David Friedman, head of the agency.

No orders to automakers are imminent, officials said.

After an agency report, the public and carmakers will have 90 days to comment, then regulators will begin drafting a proposal. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said he intends to issue the proposal before President Obama leaves office.

‘‘It will change driving as we know it over time,’’ said Scott Belcher, chief executive of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. ‘‘Automobile makers will rethink how they design and construct cars because they will no longer be constructing cars to survive a crash, but building them to avoid a crash.’’

Government officials declined to give an estimate for how much the technology would cost, but the transportation society estimates it would be $100 to $200 per vehicle.

The safety benefits can’t be achieved until there is a critical mass of cars and trucks on the road using the technology. It takes many years to turn over the nation’s entire vehicle fleet. But safety benefits can be seen with as few at 7 percent to 10 percent of vehicles in a given area similarly equipped, said Paul Feenstra, a spokesman for the transportation society.


There may be another way to speed things up, according to a presentation last year by Qualcomm Inc. About 45 percent of Americans use smartphones, and that share is growing. Smartphones, which already have GPS, could be used to retrofit vehicles already on the road so they can talk to each other. Using phones could also extend the safety benefits of connected-car technology to pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists.