ITS Coming Soon
Location-aware ACC is a good example of intelligent car technology, but it only scratches the surface of what is possible in a larger infrastructure known as the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) that are being developed by many countries, including the U.S. ITS is a collection of current and proposed technologies that would link intelligent vehicles and intelligent roadways using telecommunications and information processing technology. And if cars that think for the driver seem a bit scary, then ITS will probably make you downright paranoid.
The upside of combining smart cars with smart roads is that it would dramatically improve vehicle safety and traffic flow. Sensors and wireless networks would be installed along roadways, while vehicles would be equipped with wireless networking along with onboard sensors and control systems.
Communication would take place between the car and infrastructure network (known as vehicle-to-infrastructure integration, or VII) and between cars themselves (known as vehicle-to-vehicle, or V2V, communication). Information on road hazards, speed and locations of vehicles would be conveyed to systems onboard vehicles for a clearer picture of what's around them as well as what's waiting down the road.
There are almost no limits to the possibilities of ITS. Imagine an integrated ITS system that could switch on your lights at dusk, slow you down in fog, speed you up on an open road, automatically direct you into an HOV lane, prevent vehicles from exceeding the speed limit, route you around road congestion or construction and warn you of a stalled vehicle or ice patches in your path.
Highway to Heaven or Hell?
This may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but some of it is already online in countries like Japan, where it's easier to implement because of the size of the country and the smaller number of vehicles on the road. And some ITS technologies are already common in the U.S., such as electronic toll collection and traffic cameras that monitor the roadway, with more on the way.
Depending on your viewpoint, all of this technology is either the mother of all safety nets or a desecration of personal liberty. ADAS and ITS could save lives, but they would also take away some driver autonomy. You would be more protected against unsafe drivers, but you would have less control over your own vehicle.
For now, ITS is only a set of proposals for future technology, but ADAS is already a major focus for automakers. Volvo made its City Safety feature, which automatically applies the brakes to avoid a rear-end collision in stop-and-go urban traffic, a major part of promoting its new XC60 crossover, and the company added a similar Pedestrian Detection system to the new 2011 S60. The safety-oriented Swedish automaker has also stated a goal of producing an "injury-proof" car by 2020.
Legal issues regarding privacy and personal responsibility will have to be sorted out, of course. For starters, would "safe" cars make drivers feel invincible and cause them to become more complacent, leading to more (but perhaps more survivable) accidents? And when accidents occur, will lawyers argue that their client didn't run over that baby carriage, but rather that it's the car's fault?
While it's in everyone's interest to put crash-test dummies out of work, achieving that goal will mean careful evolution of ADAS technology and perhaps even occasional unwillingness to adopt some of its features. But one thing is certain: The line between being a driver and being a passenger has begun to blur.