The easier, safer rides of the future

A screen in a prototype vehicle shows researchers what their car can "see" -- including whether a vehicle ahead is braking, its speed, and how close it is, as well as whether you're about to run a stop sign.

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Kai Ryssdal: It's tempting to daydream -- as you're fighting traffic to and from work every day -- of a time when cars will drive themselves. When all you'll have to do is climb in, sip your coffee and read the headlines on your iPad -- whatever's going to take its place. Google did make big news last month sending four driverless vans down the Pacific Coast Highway.

But as exciting -- or perhaps scary -- as it might be to think about life with a robotic chauffeur, that reality is way, way down the road, so to speak. Soon enough, though, cars will be equipped to help us drive better and safer. Which is where we'll start a series we're running this week on the future of transportation.

From WNYC in New York City, Andrea Bernstein reports.


Audrey Hepburn singing

Andrea Bernstein: Remember how in those old movies, the actors never look at the road?

Humphrey Bogart: Why are you looking at me that way?

And you think, "How could they be so unsafe? How could they drive like that? Ten or 15 years from now, you'll look back on the way we drive today, and maybe you'll wonder the same thing.

Already, some cars can "see" their surroundings. Mercedes-Benz and other automakers have installed radar sensors on their cars.

Mercedes-Benz ad: It got my attention, telling me that I wasn't paying attention. The car hit the brakes faster than I could.

But a decade from now, that will seem primitive. In the future, with a combination of GPS and wireless technology, your car will have a 360-degree view. Put the technology in more than one car and in traffic signals, and suddenly your automobile can "talk" to its surroundings.

Farid Ahmed-Zaid: OK, go ahead.

This technology is being tested right now at Ford Motor company in Dearborn, Mich. It's part of a $50 million-a-year research program by the U.S. Department of Transportation. On the Ford "campus," I step into the test car with engineers Farid Ahmed-Zaid and Joe Stinnett. Ahmed-Zaid is driving.

Farid Ahmed-Zaid: We are in a Ford Flex, and it's a prototype vehicle that has wireless communications.

A second car, a small green SUV -- also wirelessly equipped -- approaches an intersection in front of us. Joe Stinnett:

Joe Stinnett: We're going to drive toward it just like we weren't going to stop, and you can see the alerts.

Sounds of beeps

Along with the beeps, a set of red lights flash. Ahmed-Zaid hits the brakes and a crash is avoided. Stinnett tells me a quarter of all the some 30,000 car fatalities a year occur at intersections.

Then we test another scenario, on a regular highway. The SUV is somewhere up ahead, but a truck pulls in front of us, blocking our view. What if the SUV -- six cars ahead -- braked suddenly?

Stinnett: It takes time for those brake lights to propogate back to where you actually see them, and at that point, it may be too late.

But with wireless communications...

Sounds of beeps

Researcher Michael Shulman says there could be a day where, if a car brakes suddenly on a highway, all the vehicles behind it will too.

Michael Shulman: We think it's a little further out, especially because some of the security issues that we would need to solve.

You can't have the car's wireless communications system be vulnerable to hacking, and the system can't crash. But still, the DOT is confident enough in the technology that it's almost ready to start testing 3,000 prototypes at once -- on a college campus or in a small town.

Shelly Row, the head of the program, says the technology is a self-contained wireless system.

Shelly Row: That allows the vehicles to communicate with each other at extremely rapid rates of speed. Which you can imagine, if you're about to avoid a crash, you need to be able to communicate very quickly.

The DOT wants the system in every new car. But if you're still driving around the wheels you bought in 1998, the DOT is hoping mobile devices can be wired to get your old car connected too. There's another big challenge: Driver acceptance. Out on the street, actual drivers are somewhat skeptical when told their car is about to get a whole lot smarter -- and bossier.

Man 1: That's what my eyes are for.

Woman 2: My sister has something that beeps when you back up and it's very annoying.

It turns out that can be overcome. Stanford University Professor Clifford Nass studies how to get humans to listen to their cars.

Clifford Nass: We actually have the car praise the driver.

Flattery, Nass says, always works.

Nass: And we find that that type of flattery encourages drivers to feel like the cares about me, the car thinks about me and the car thinks I'm smart.

Shulman: It will tell you, here's the weather...

Once a car is networked, it can safely tell you more than just whether you're about to run a stop sign. Back in Dearborn, Mich., researcher Michael Shulman is fiddling with a screen.

Bernstein: Can it tell if you're passing a mall if they have your pants size at the Gap?

Michael Shulman: Not yet.

But sooner than you think, it will.

In Dearborn, Mich., I'm Andrea Bernstein for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: Andrea's story came to us from the public radio project Transportation Nation. Tomorrow on the series, Bus Rapid Transit.

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