A little over a year ago, we featured a post about cars that can communicate with each other and the road, plus some exciting new possibilities for the roads themselves. We thought we’d revisit these technologies to see how far they’ve advanced.

Connected cars

Cars that can wirelessly connect to the internet are now commonplace. This connectivity can direct drivers to a nearby restaurant, allow voice-activated texting, or access online apps like Yelp or Pandora. Some auto manufacturers are using the data from connected cars to improve safety features, enhance the driving experience, and potentially help with traffic congestion. (Related: check out this myth-busting quiz on data and smart cars.)

But there are drawbacks to this type of connectivity. Head-up displays that project information like playlists or restaurant reviews onto the windshield can be a dangerous distraction — if they’re actually used. A recent J.D. Power study found that 33 percent of drivers never use their head-up display and 32 percent don’t take advantage of built-in apps. Car owners said they didn’t find those features useful and preferred technologies like blind spot warnings, which increased safety.

These systems can also be vulnerable to hackers, which is why 2 U.S. senators recently introduced a bill that’d require new security and privacy standards for connected vehicles.

Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology

Many vehicles currently offer safety features like autonomous braking or blind-spot warnings that use sensors or cameras to assess their environment. But vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology takes this kind of communication one step further. These in-car systems exchange wireless signals with other nearby cars, sharing data on speed, braking status, and position, enabling the vehicles to automatically react and even see around corners to avoid collisions. The potential for increased road safety is enormous. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that V2V could prevent more than 500,000 accidents and over 1,000 auto deaths in the U.S. annually. But the technology will need to be installed on a large number of vehicles in order to work effectively — otherwise, the V2V cars will have no one to talk to.

While at least one tech company has already developed a production-ready V2V system, and GM is planning to offer V2V in its 2017 Cadillac CTS sedan, a few challenges still need to be addressed before they are widely available on the market. One big concern is whether the 5.9 GHz radio band assigned to automakers for digital short-range communication can be shared by both V2V and Wi-Fi.

Because of the vast life-saving potential of V2V, the Department of Transportation is fast-tracking legislation that will require all new cars to be equipped with the technology. They’ve also accelerated testing of the 5.9 GHz band and have announced good initial progress. According to the DOT, “New cars with connected vehicle technology could be in our showrooms as early as 2016.”

Vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology

Another highly beneficial technology under development is V2I. It’s a similar concept to V2V, except instead of talking to other vehicles, cars would communicate with message boards, traffic lights, and other types of intelligent infrastructure. Wireless devices along roadways would warn drivers of icy conditions or road hazards, help improve traffic flow, and suggest alternate routes to avoid traffic jams or construction zones.

The combination of V2V and V2I technologies is known as V2X (vehicle-to-everything). The DOT estimates that V2X could prevent up to 81 percent of vehicle collisions.

These technologies are being tested at Mcity, a highly realistic, 32-acre urban environment on the University of Michigan campus. The University’s Mobility Transformation Center, which created Mcity, is also testing around 9,000 automated vehicles in real-world, on-roadway deployments around Ann Arbor.

Another pilot program will soon be underway in New York City. Traffic lights in Midtown Manhattan and Brooklyn are being outfitted with V2I hardware, and around 10,000 NYC-owned vehicles will be equipped with V2V technology.

And if V2X can make it there, it can make it anywhere.

Electric highways and solar bike paths

The roads of the future may be smarter in other ways as well. For example, what if your highway could fuel your car for you? Great Britain’s highways department is planning to test an under-road system that would charge the batteries in electric cars as they passed above. Known as dynamic charging, these systems could help alleviate “range anxiety” (the fear of running out of battery power while driving) and encourage the adoption of electric vehicles. Trials should start later this year.

And what if the road itself could provide the electricity for the car batteries? That may also be a possibility. In South Korea, urban planners have installed solar panels over a bike path that runs between the lanes of a 20-mile stretch of highway. The panels protect cyclists from sun and rain, while generating power for street lamps and charging stations along the way. And last November, the Dutch city of Krommenie unveiled the world’s first bike path with solar panels embedded in the lanes. Though fairly short (about 230 feet), the path produced enough electricity in its first 6 months to power a small home for a year.

The road ahead

With advancements in safety and energy efficiency transforming our cars and streets, the future we’re heading for looks pretty darn cool.

If you want to know more about how connected cars are using (and sharing) all that intel to help pave the road ahead, check out this report on car data myths and realities.

Smart technology | Car tech


about Ellen

Ellen has spent many years as a professional wordsmith, helping to shed light on such topics as world travel, cargo pants, and the porosity of bath tiles. As a freelance copywriter for Esurance, she brings her boundless curiosity to the world of insurance. Outside work, she can be found cheering on the San Francisco Giants, hiking in the Oakland hills, and (barely) resisting smuggling penguins home from Antarctica.