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Ford develops talking cars – and traffic lights

Blue Oval's research into infrastructure-to-vehicle technology could help reduce accidents and congestion

We’ve already been impressed by the range of driver assists in the 2011 Ford Focus, but the company isn’t resting on its laurels.

In fact, boffins have been working for several years on systems that are even cleverer than automatic braking and lane assistance: cars that can communicate with ‘smart’ traffic lights and other cars to warn drivers if they’re about to have an accident.

Ford has demonstrated a ‘smart intersection’ near its Research & Innovation Centre in Michigan, USA. The crossroads communicates with specially-equipped test cars to warn drivers of potentially dangerous traffic situations, such as when a vehicle is about to drive through a red light. Sensors monitor traffic signal status, GPS data and digital maps to assess potential hazards, and then transmit the information to vehicles.

This means that you could be driving along, about to cross an intersection with green traffic lights, but another distracted driver is about to drive straight through a red light and into your path. Ford’s new system means that your vehicle will be able to work out if the car will safely cross the intersection or if it needs to stop before reaching it. In the latter case, you’ll get visual and audible warnings if you’re not already braking quickly enough.

In order to test whether such vehicle-to-vehicle communication works in the real world, Ford is planning to run tests on 400 drivers around Frankfurt, Germany in 2012.

“For [the tests], 100 drivers actively collect data by completing driving tasks and 300 drivers passively collect data by driving where they would normally go,” said Christian Ress of Ford’s Research & Advanced Engineering Europe. “This wireless vehicle project is taking into consideration hazard and collision warnings as well as the delivery of real-time traffic information, including traffic light and traffic sign information. The goals are to improve road safety and traffic efficiency, and to pave the way for full deployment.”

Ford is also contributing to the DRIVE C2X project, which is co-funded by the European Commission. “This project has just kicked off in January 2011 and brings together more than 40 stakeholders, such as OEMs, suppliers, universities and public authorities,” said Ress. “Within the framework of DRIVE C2X, field operational tests in a real-world environment will be conducted in seven test sites all over Europe implementing the same technology in order to ensure interoperability across all European countries.”

Naturally, these systems will only work if all vehicles on the road use similar equipment and “speak the same language”. Ress adds, “That’s why it’s critical for Ford to work closely with other automakers, suppliers and governments to agree on standard communication protocols and message sets. At Ford, we would like a system for connected vehicles that works in a similar manner globally.”

It could be a decade or more before such a system is implemented, but we’ll be testing Fords Driver Assist Pack much sooner. We’re heading up to Glasgow next week to see how well the adaptive cruise control, auto braking, blind spot assist and traffic sign recognition systems work, so watch out for a full report.