We got a first-hand look at how “connected vehicles” work yesterday at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America's 22nd annual convention.

A technology similar to Wi Fi, dedicated short-range communication (DSRC) enables vehicles to radio their location and speed to each other and infrastructure like traffic signals and toll booth and warn drivers - through sound, internal lighting, and haptic feedback (i.e., the driver's seat vibrates) - of impending collisions in time to keep them from happening.

Results from the first phase of testing, 90% of people who drove an equipped vehicle found the warning systems useful. Beginning in August, the City of Ann Arbor, Mich., will find out how well vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology works with cars, buses, and trucks operating in the real world.

In a $15 million pilot project funded by the U.S. and Michigan DOTs, approximately 18 roadside antennas (called “beacons”) will be installed in the right of way - on infrastructure assets like signal control arms, poles, and boxes - around the University of Michigan hospital. For one year, almost 3,000 volunteers will drive either their own vehicle retrofit with the necessary equipment or a fully equipped vehicle on loan from one of the eight manufacturers developing the systems with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA):

  • Ford Motor Co.
  • General Motors LLC
  • Honda R&D Americas Inc.
  • Hyundai-Kia America Technical Center Inc.
  • Mercedes-Benz Research and Development North America Inc.
  • Nissan Technical Center North America
  • Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America Inc.
  • Volkswagen Group of America Inc.

Other than the beacons, Ann Arbor will install no new traffic control equipment or technology, change existing traffic timing plans, or make any other change for the project.

The U.S. DOT says the technology addresses up to 80% of crashes not involving impaired drivers. It's supposed to lower congestion due to things like rush-hour collisions, but whether or not it'll be equally effective on rural roads - still the most dangerous despite aggressive federal, state, and local efforts like the Zero Death Initiative - remains to be seen.

The technology will work as intended only if all vehicles are properly equipped. After analyzing Ann Arbor's experience, NHTSA will proceed to rulemaking in summer 2013: deciding whether to require manufacturers to make certain options standard or optional.