At the height of the television show Knight Rider's popularity, I was one of probably several grade-school boys that fantasized about someday strapping on a slick leather jacket and taking that high-tech beast for a spin.
Although a part of me still holds out hope for a vehicle capable of at least carrying on a conversation, automotive innovation has accelerated just enough to produce cars that do "talk" to us in helpful -- though subtler -- ways.
Many newer models are equipped with computerized dashboards that tell drivers how many miles they have left before running out of gas and Tom Tom GPS systems that give vocalized turn-by-turn directions. And pretty soon, cars may come with a "smart technology" that allows them to communicate to each other to prevent fatal crashes.
On Tuesday, Ford Motor Company demoed a crash warning system that utilizes WiFi technology to detect potential collisions and then notify the driver with a series of beeping noises and flashing red lights. The demonstration, conducted at a Washington D.C. parking lot, was for federal officials who have invested over 40 million dollars in the technology and plans to pony up an extra 36 million dollars for further development.
While some cars are installed with radar systems that can sense a troubling situation directly ahead, the smart car system goes a step further by pinpointing an incoming hazard in all directions and more than 900 feet away, thanks to multi-directional WiFi signals that send out a car's location, cruising speed and brake status.
A local Fox News crew was able to test out the system and gives an account of how the system would work in a real-life situation:
Ford Technical Expert Farid Ahmed-Zaid and Joe Stinnett showed us some of the moves. First, Forward Collision Warning: "Keep an eye on the vehicle ahead. We're going to drive towards it. Hang on!" says Stinnett as we race toward an Explorer that has just slammed on its brakes.
A second pass demonstrates how the V2V system is better than radar. This time, we are keeping up speed with a car in front of us.
Suddenly the car swerves to avoid a slower moving vehicle in front. Usually this is when drivers have little time to react. Radar wouldn't pick up the object ahead until it's almost too late.
Wi-Fi has already sensed the third car as a slower moving object, and begins warning us even before the second car swerves away.
Peter Appel, an administrator of the Research and Innovative Technology Administration at the U.S. Department of Transportation, told the Washington Post in an article that the technology can potentially save "a lot of lives."
The article cited a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggesting that the system can save lives in roughly "80 percent of reported crashes that do not involve drunk drivers."
But before such a system can receive an official green light, the researchers need to work out some kinks. The WiFi signals would be sent through an FCC-allocated channel that might get congested during periods of heavy bumper-to-bumper traffic. There's also the looming threat of hackers out to sabotage the system, potential interference from other WiFi networks and privacy concerns.
Perhaps the toughest hurdle is the complex task of getting the major automakers to talk to each other first in order to hash out a universal standard for how such a system would work. One major incentive is the relative low cost of implementing the technology. It is estimated that adopting the system would cost manufacturers an extra 100 dollars per vehicle.
If everything works out, the smart car technology will come standard in 2013 models.