A way to avoid traffic congestion, reduce gas consumption and a potential to affect up to 81% of police-reported light vehicle crashes*?  All done with minimal cost from a few computer and communications chips?  Sound too good to be true?

It’s done by putting the equivalent of a basic smart phone into a vehicle.  This allows vehicles-to-vehicle communications at short ranges, both to each other and to infrastructure.  Stopped vehicle ahead around a blind curve?  You’ll get a warning.  Stopped traffic from a crash that just happened?  You’ll get re-routed to avoid it.

Sound too far off to care?  Ford is doubling its research in cooperation with the Department of Transportation and other auto manufacturers to produce an interoperable standard.  The goal is to turn today’s prototypes into production systems a few years from now.  With enough vehicles of all makes talking to each other, many traffic problems can be avoided.  With Ford’s tour stop in the Chicago area, I got to see it first hand.

A few videos are worth a few thousand words, though it was a lot more impressive in person than the video could re-create.  In the first video, there is a stopped blue car ahead.  We can’t see it because the black car in front of us blocks our view.  When the black car swerves to avoid the stopped car, we’d have crashed if we didn’t have advance notice from the other two vehicles that also have the system.  On the right, you can see what the software is seeing.  While the driver just gets a warning, those of us in back had the luxury of seeing the prototype software display telling us where the alerts are located.

In the next video, we get a Do Not Pass warning.  Perhaps there’s an oncoming car around a corner or over a hill and you would like to pass.  The smart car knows it’s coming, even if you can’t see it.

Finally, to our right is a large 18-wheel semi-tractor trailer.  It blocks our view of a simulated intersection.  A car ahead from the right is not stopping.  Our car knows it is coming and sounds the alarm to stop.

Today, some luxury and other cars have collision avoidance systems.  These are generally based on cameras or radars that detect vehicles directly in front.  Like our eyes, they generally can’t detect vehicles that are out of sight.  The Ford system has no such limitation and works in a wider variety of potential crash and traffic scenarios.

You can find Ford’s longer (and more professional) video here:

My main concern was security.  Hackers will crack anything that talks to another computer eventually.  My understanding is that unlike built-in collision systems that can work in conjunction with brakes and seatbelt pre-tensioners and such, the Ford system would be used for warnings, both audible and visual.  They are certainly aware of security concerns and that appears to be a major part of the effort.  So what do you think?  Love it?  Hate it?  Can’t wait to see it in practice?

*Based on a 2010 NHTSA report on vehicle-to-vehicle communications estimates.