Photo: Daimler

You may talk to your car, and some in cases it may even talk back. And you’ve probably thrown a few choice words at other drivers in a impromptu bout of rage. But cars are silently communicating with each other and with transportation infrastructure in two field trials that kicked off this month near Frankfurt, Germany, and in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Mercedes-Benz parent company Daimler is spearheading what it’s calling the “first ‘social network’ for automobiles.” But instead of sharing lolcat pics and mundane musings, the 120 vehicles in the project will be communicating with one another as well as with infrastructure to avoid accidents and traffic jams, along with a range of other applications. Daimler claims it’s the largest ever field trial of vehicle-to-X communication (V2X) – a combination of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication – to show how the technology can be used to decrease accidents and increase driving efficiency. But in sheer number of vehicles it pales in comparison to a similar V2V field trial that the National Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) is conducting in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The European trial is part of the simTD (Safe Intelligent Mobility – test field Germany) research project spearheaded by Daimler Research and Advance Development and sponsored by the German government. Other participants include automakers Opel, Audi, BMW/Mini, Ford and Volkswagen, along with automotive suppliers Bosch and Continental, Deutsche Telekom and several research institutes. The trial consists of 120 vehicles that will be hitting the roads of the Frankfurt Rhine-Main region until the end of the year. According to Car and Driver, the fleet includes specially equipped Audi A4s, BMW X1s, Ford S-Maxes, Mercedes-Benz C-Classes, Opel Insignias and Volkswagen Passats.

Vehicles will be connected to each other and to infrastructure via a form of Wi-Fi that has a range of just over 300 yards, according to Mike Shulman who is directing Ford’s participation in both trials and is the automaker’s technical leader of Active Safety Research and Innovation. The vehicles in the European trial will constantly keep each other posted on road hazards and traffic, much the same way an annoying acquaintance keeps you updated on his status by posting to Facebook every few seconds.

One beneficial scenario provided by Daimler: If there’s a traffic jam on the autobahn and it’s concealed behind the crest of a hill, vehicles barreling down the road at 100 mph-plus would be alerted to avoid rear-ending the last car. The company also points to possible environmental and convenience benefits of V2X systems, such as coordinating traffic lights according to traffic density to make driving more fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly, and even being able to seek out and suggest routes to the nearest available parking spots.

By comparison, the NHTSA Ann Arbor trial will last an entire year and include 3,000 vehicles driven by ordinary people, but equipped with Wi-Fi communications and other technology such as radar and cameras. The reason the U.S. trial requires a lot more vehicles and a lot more time is to gauge how a large pool of vehicles interact with each other over a longer period to gather enough data to determine the effectiveness of V2V communication to reduce accidents, says Ford’s Shulman.

One group will drive the cars for the first six months and then a second group will drive the vehicles for the last six months of the trial. “They’ll drive them to work, go shopping and wherever they want to go,” Shulman told Wired. “The drivers were carefully selected so that they work in the same area, drop their kids off at school in the same area and have the same shift time. The idea is that, over this year-long period, we could see how well these cars really perform. Are they getting the timely warnings? Are they getting a lot of false warnings? What’s really happening that we haven’t seen on a track but under real-world conditions?”

In addition to the number of cars and duration, the big difference between the two trials is that the U.S. version is solely focused on reducing accidents. “NHTSA has done a study that says that more than 80 percent of the crashes could be impacted by V2V technology,” Shulman says. He adds that the federal agency is conducting the trial to determine whether V2V technology can be deployed to effectively prevent injuries and fatalities – and whether to mandate it on new cars. “They’re going to look at whether to apply this to new vehicles and other modes of transportation like trucks, buses and motorcycle, and even pedestrians and in aftermarket devices,” he adds.

“The Europeans are not looking at regulation; they’re looking at this as a voluntary deployment, at least for now,” Shulman says. “They’re looking at it more as a mobility application, using vehicles as a probe to show travel history and congestion over routes and determine the best routes to take based on real-time congestion. It can warn of traffic and construction up ahead, but it’s not for that last second before a crash. It’s more for information to the driver or information from the vehicle back to the traffic management center.”

Shulman says that the European trials should be thought of as, “not the first step, but a long-term step, and there’s other benefits that driver could enjoy as we get this technology deployed. We’re trying to learn from both and bringing harmonization where we can, and move toward the concept on the connected vehicle. How we’re approaching it is it will go on different paths to different places.”

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from Wired: Autopia