Mechanically Speaking

Mechanically Speaking: Connected cars, disconnected drivers

"What used to be straightforward with buttons and knobs is now hidden with a graphical user interface."

With all the talk about distracted driving these days one would hope that drivers would start taking the hint and pay attention to their driving. How is the world going to deal with this epidemic? You guessed it. The band-aid approach.

The band-aids are coming faster than you think. There have been many news items about the ultimate band-aid. The autonomous car (the car that drives itself). Those are many years away still.

The current crop of more technically advanced vehicles will do their best to prevent you from doing something foolish while distracted.

They are equipped with blind spot detection systems that prevent you from changing lanes when there is a vehicle beside you.

They have cruise control systems that will maintain the distance between you and the vehicle ahead of you.

They have antilock brake systems that give you some extra braking force when you are not pressing on the brake pedal hard enough. They have collision avoidance systems that will stop the vehicle when you are about to run over or run into something or someone.

All of this technology is pretty amazing as it is. On the other hand these same vehicles are filled with options that seemingly were only put there to distract you. In many cases the distraction is just figuring out how to get the interior temperature set just right and the air blowing at a tolerable speed.

What used to be straightforward with buttons and knobs is now hidden with a graphical user interface.

Your new car may even be an internet hub. At least then you could use Google and YouTube onboard to figure out how to operate it. It is lot faster than reading the owner’s bible.

The next band-aid to be deployed is probably coming by government decree. The buzzwords are “the connected car”. There will be two connections vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I).

The V2V connection allows vehicles to notify each other of their speed and location. The V2I connections allow the vehicle to connect with stoplights, construction signs, etc.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is running a pilot program in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This program is an ongoing experiment involving 2800 vehicles and 73 lane-miles in the northeast part of the city.

Each vehicle is fitted with a dual-band radio similar to a Wi-Fi transmitter. Relying on a GPS sensor, this radio sends and receives 10 location signals (or alerts and road info) per second.

Roadside waterproof transmitters attached to traffic light poles at curves and intersections gather information regarding highway conditions like road temperature, the current color of the crossing lights (red, green or yellow).

A “connected car” approaching an intersection has a bunch of information to process. The test vehicles in this experiment have information displays for the driver. As the vehicle approaches an intersection a display indicates whether the vehicle will get through before the light turns red.

The behaviour of any vehicles ahead is being transmitted as well. If the vehicle ahead has to slam on the brakes that info is passed on to the vehicle behind by flashing a panic-stop warning on the driver’s display.

Upcoming dangerous curves will cause speed warnings to come up on the display. Moisture sensors embedded in roadways will broadcast alerts for icy conditions. Radar-scanning crosswalks will notify drivers of pedestrians. The possibilities are endless.

At its basic level the driver will still be required to react to the information being presented.

When the V2V and V2I information is able to be processed by the vehicles built-in safety systems the driver will start to be taken out of the picture.

Your vehicle will reach a new level of artificial intelligence.

Trail’s Ron Nutini is a licensed automotive technician and graduate of mechanical engineering from UBC. E-mail:

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