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Our Feb. 5 hour on the future of self-driving cars had a rather timely news peg this week — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced on February 3 that it plans to require car makers in the future to implement technology promoting 'vehicle-to-vehicle communication,' or 'V2V.'
The N.H.T.S.A. hopes to use V2V technology in the future to help prevent collisions and automatically spur breaking as cars approach each other in an accident situation.
NBC News correspondent Tom Costello has been covering the tech side of the automobile industry for a while now, and he joined us to explain his journey to Ann Arbor, MI, where he rode along in some test V2v cars himself.
Tom Ashbrook: First, to this week's announcement. Tom Costello is correspondent for NBC News, joins me from Washington. He covers transporation, consuemr affairs and more. Was in Ann Arbor, MI when the N.H.T.S.A. kicked off testing for so-called vehicle to vehicle communication. He's driven cars equipped with 'V2V' technology. Tom Costello, welcome to On Point very nice to have you.
Tom Costello: Nice to be here.
TA: Why is the N.H.T.S.A. pushing on this now this week?
TC: I'll make it easy on you just call it N.H.T.S.A. The reason is that the Department of Transportation really believes that the technology is there already. And I must tell you that most major car manufacturers believe it too, they've already been working on this for many years. So let's separate out two different issues here: vehicle-to-vehicle communication, where Car A talks to Car B, and Car C and Car D, and because they're all talking to each other on the road, they know where each other is going and what's happening and therefore they can hopefully avoid an accident if you, the driver, fail to avoid an accident. That's separate from fully autonomous cars, so let's separate that out. That's V2V. What N.H.T.S.A. is saying, is that we believe the technology is so close to being ready for prime time here, and in fact they just did this 12-month program in Ann Arbor as you mentioned with 3000 vehicles in the city, and they tested and it seemed to work very well. And they had multiple vendors, in other words they had Audi and Volkswagen and Mercedes, as well as of course Ford and some of the others. I was in a Ford car trying it out. They think that now what needs to happen is the government needs to set the general parameters for these different car manufactures to begin working on the platforms by which they will communicate out on the open road out across the country. The government is not setting up the infrastructure importantly, but what they are gonna say is ‘Okay we're gonna transmit on this particular frequency, we're gonna have these bandwidth parameters’, somebody needs to set the guidelines and the rules, so that everybody else can play.
TA: What’s the range of data that they anticipate cars will be communicating to one another, like what?
TC: They are literally talking about being able to transit ten pieces of data every second. And it will be everything from your car position, via GPS, to how well you brake, how well you are braking, are you hitting ice, are you turning left are you turning right, are you speeding — all of that information constantly transmitted in a radius of about 300 yards or so, maybe more, and other cars in the vicinity picking up all that information. It all amalgamates in each other's computers and the cars are saying ‘Okay I know that this guy is coming in from the left and I know he's gotta brake to hit the red light, if he doesn’t hit his brakes, he's gonna go right through that light and he's gonna t-bone me. And in fact that's what happened to me, I was in Ann Arbor, and I was on a test track, and a car — we knew this was gonna happen — and a car blew his red light and before I got up to my green light, I got LED warnings, my seat rumbled and I got a slight tap on the brake telling me, ‘Hey watch out something's coming and you might not be ready for it.’
TA: So when the information comes in communicated car to car, is it primarily to alert the driver — the human — to do something, or is the idea that the cars themselves will respond, react?
TC: I think we're talking about both. In the most primitive forms, it would be a driver alert, and that's frankly most of what I experienced. I got flashing LED lights, my seat would rumble, and it’s interesting, on your left side or your left cheek, it rumbles if it's coming in from the left, your right cheek rumbles if it’s coming in from the right, you also get an audible warning. It could be a beeping, it could be a computer voice saying ‘Caution’ or ‘Alert’ or something like that. But we've already seen the technology in place and it was advertised on Super Bowl Sunday, of course, in which a car slams on its brake on its own because you, the driver — in this case it was a 17 year-old boy distracted by a cute girl — didn’t realize he was about to plow into somebody. All of this technology exists already, mostly it exists in the form of sensors and radars, which may of us have on our cars already to prevent us from hitting the guy in front of us if we're in that kind of specific mode, cruise control mode. But now this is taking it to the next level and literally communicating with each other.
TA: What’s the time table for all new cars to have this Tom?
TC: This is important, I’m glad you raised it. There was a little bit of confusion or misreporting on this topic. What the Department of Transportation is saying is it wants to have the rule in place by the time the Obama Administration leaves office. It's not telling you ‘You have to have the technology in place,’ it wants the rules in place. And the rule will state that car companies have to have the technology in place by X date. They haven't given that date yet because they want to be able to work through public input, they also want to hear from the car manufacturers and get everybody on board. I suspect that we're probably looking at five to ten years past 2016. So somewhere in the neighborhood of 2021, 2025, somewhere in there, if the D.O.T. and N.H.T.S.A . go forward with this and there aren't massive lawsuits, if this goes forward, I suspect we're talking in probably five to ten to 12 years before this now becomes standard required
TA: It obviously works best if all cars have it, but they're talking new cars, but what about retrofitting cars already on the road, might that be required or not?
TC: No I don’t think you could ever require that, and they would never attempt that. Almost all of these new advancements to safety come from new technology being put into new cars. Look at what's happened with air bags. The drop in fatalities and traffic fatalities is remarkable and attributable mostly to better built cars, but most importantly airbags. And second from that, much better construction of roads, and you know we now got roundabouts and better on ramps and off ramps and that kind of thing. But what this marks is a big shift — rather than trying to make sure you survive a crash, they want to make sure you never have a crash, and that hopefully the technology there is that they can do that.
TA: Tom, everybody thinks about driving a little differently. What about you, you've experienced it in Ann Arbor, would you, do you welcome this in your next car or car somewhere down he road?
TC: Yeah, I think so. Listen, you know, I can tell you that on my car, I’ve got the backup camera, I’ve got the sensors so I don’t hit the trash can orGod forbid a little kid behind that I don’t see. I really welcome that. It's only , I think, enhanced safety in my case and I have had, you know everybody when they have a car over the course of their car they may bump the bumper a couple of times. At least I haven’t had it happen to me once in the last two cars I’ve had, and I think it's because I’ve got these bumpers. So I can only imagine that the safety picture will dramatically improve for me and probably for everybody else.