WASHINGTON -- Signaling a technological leap forward for the auto industry and a boon to Silicon Valley, the federal government announced Monday it will take steps to require all new cars and light trucks to communicate with each other, a move aimed at significantly reducing the more than 30,000 vehicle deaths each year.
For decades, the focus of auto safety has primarily been on surviving the traumatic impact of crashes through features like air bags and seat belts. But now the focus has shifted to avoiding crashes by developing technology to make future vehicles "smart" enough to detect and respond to threats, such as an oncoming vehicle.
The technology, known as "vehicle-to-vehicle," or "V2V," lets cars "talk" to each other and exchange safety data, such as speed and position. If a nearby car abruptly changes lanes and moves into another car's blind spot, the car would be alerted.
"Vehicle-to-vehicle technology represents the next generation of auto safety improvements, building on the lifesaving achievements we've already seen with safety belts and air bags," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said during a news conference in Washington, D.C. "By helping drivers avoid crashes, this technology will play a key role in improving the way people get where they need to go while ensuring that the U.S. remains the leader in the global automotive industry."
The trend has enormous implications for Silicon Valley, where the idea of increased connectivity -- often referred to as the "Internet of Things" -- is all the rage. A December report by Gartner found that the Internet of Things, which excludes PCs, tablets and smartphones, will grow to 26 billion units installed by 2020, a 30-fold increase from 900 million in 2009, as advanced medical devices, industrial robotics and electrical transmission systems all gain greater connectivity.
Already, several major automakers have set up technology research and development centers in Silicon Valley, while companies like Google and Tesla Motors have been at the forefront of efforts to develop "self-driving," or autonomous, cars. And tech giants like Cisco stand to gain millions of new customers, since the infrastructure for the technology largely relies on wireless systems.
"Cisco has been waiting for this. It opens up a very large and new market for Silicon Valley," said Tao Zhang, chief scientist for Smart Connected Vehicles at Cisco. "Today's announcement by the Department of Transportation sets in motion a lot of efforts by carmakers and the tech industry to go ahead and implement the technology. In order to support V2V, you need a fairly sophisticated infrastructure network to support it, and you need to do it in a way that preserves driver privacy. That's not a trivial job."
Google and Tesla did not respond to requests for comment. But Transportation Secretary Foxx said that V2V technology complements autonomous driving.
"V2V is wholly harmonious with the efforts toward vehicle automation," he said. "It's a building block that would be used in autonomous vehicles."
Federal transportation officials did not announce when the new regulations would go into effect but said they hope to propose the new V2V rules before President Barack Obama leaves office in January 2017.
Research on V2V technology has been underway for nearly a decade, and more than 3,000 vehicles currently have the technology as part of a pilot program in Ann Arbor, Mich. Several automakers, meanwhile, have already begun to roll out high-tech systems that include active cruise control, lane keeping assistance and blind spot detection systems.
A fully loaded 2014 Mercedes S-class, for example, includes "Distronic Plus," which uses advanced radar sensors to scan for stopped or slowing traffic. If the system senses an imminent collision, the brakes are applied, and the driver is audibly alerted. And Toyota is using high-end cameras, radar and control software as part of its forthcoming "Lane Trace Control." The system adjusts a vehicle's steering angle, driving torque and braking force to maintain an optimal line within a driving lane.
Palo Alto-based Tesla Motors has the ability to push software updates out to its current Model S customers, so the car can automatically be refreshed to include new or enhanced capabilities, including a "sensor suite" of safety features the company is developing. Future upgrades may include pedestrian detection, collision avoidance technology and additional cameras to monitor blind spots or obstructions while driving.
Eventually, sensors could allow vehicle-to-pedestrian or vehicle-to-bicyclist communication as well.
"The potential of V2V to save lives is enormous," said David Friedman, acting administrator of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. "The results could be revolutionary for roadway safety."
Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.