Smart-car technology getting closer

Front end of red car on highway

How far off is the technology that will have cars driving themselves? It's probably closer than most of us imagine.

We've been hearing about smart cars and smart highway systems for a while.

Ultimately we could see a time when vehicles operate automatically with little or no driver input.

Although smart highways are probably a long way off, smart-car systems are just beyond our reach.

For those of us who can still find something about driving to enjoy, the idea of computers rather than humans controlling a vehicle's operation isn't particularly appealing.

I have friends who refuse to engage cruise control because it removes some of their hands-on oversight. The thought of a computer taking nearly total control of their car makes them positively crazed.

However, even those of us who are somewhat suspicious of such technology must admit that it isn't without potential benefit.

One example of a positive effect is the reduction, or even the elimination, of collisions.

Ford has its lab-coat types working on a car-to-car communications system that it calls Intelligent Vehicle.

It allows vehicles using Wi-Fi to announce their position to surrounding traffic.

Unlike the radar-based systems found in some current models, Wi-Fi doesn't require line-of-sight to operate.

Several carmakers today offer some type of lane departure warning system that alerts the driver when the car is drifting out of its lane. Some makers, such as Infiniti, have systems that will even nudge the car back into its lane.

Several makers also have blind-spot warning systems to alert the driver when another vehicle is traveling just off the rear quarter area, perhaps unseen in the mirror.

Systems such as Intelligent Vehicle take these radar-based alerts to the next level.

I had the opportunity to experience Ford's system on a closed course near its product development center in Dearborn, Mich.

Using Wi-Fi signals, these cars alerted surrounding vehicles to their position, warning for lane encroachment and emergency braking.

It even alerted us to a car speeding into our lane from in front of an 18-wheeler seconds before we were even aware it was there.

Currently taking action to avoid whatever problem the system senses is still up to the driver, but the logical progression is eventually for the system's computer to brake or swerve the car in response to the warning.

Smart-car technology could be the next big thing.

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