WiFi, GPS system can save lives on nation's highways

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Lawmakers and safety officials have taken aim at distracted driving in the form of talking and texting on cell phones, but it's good to hear some of the same technology will now be used to improve safety.

Drivers have always communicated with each other in various ways -- horns, turn signals and tail lights for example, plus other ways that are not so friendly -- but this time it will be the cars that do the talking.

A group of manufacturers is investing up to $76 million to create a crash warning system that uses WiFi and GPS to allow vehicles to keep track of each other and provide early warnings should an accident appear imminent.

It works up to 900 feet away and sends out a special WiFi signal 10 times a second to alert other vehicles of a car's presence. If an accident seems likely, it warns the driver through flashing lights and beeps.

Yes, alert drivers keep track of other cars, but they can't see around blind corners, in bad weather or at intersections where visibility is impaired. WiFi has the advantage of being much cheaper than radar systems, as well as detecting cars beyond other obstacles.

Safety groups are pushing for the technology to become mandatory by 2013, and at least one manufacturer is working to make it cheaply enough to be included in the lowest-priced vehicles.

The system isn't foolproof yet; developers aren't sure how to handle situations where more than 100 units are in range of each other, or how to prevent hackers and false alarms.

But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration thinks that vehicle-to-vehicle warning systems could prevent nearly 80 percent of crashes not involving drunk drivers, potentially saving tens of thousands of lives per year.

More Americans die every two years in traffic accidents than were lost in the entire war in Vietnam. We already require anti-lock brakes and stability control in new cars -- if we can save thousands of lives each year by adding a few hundred dollars to the price of a new car, it will be well worth it.

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