AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Someday, our cars will talk to one another. That's what the experts say. Cars will use wireless communication devices which could prevent huge numbers of traffic accidents. And today, the largest-ever test of this brave new connected world officially launched in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Tracy Samilton of Michigan Radio got an early look.
MELISSA DONIA: All right, gentlemen, EEBL in three, two, one.
TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: EEBL, that's code for Emergency Electronic Brake Lights. Driver Melissa Donia works with the Department of Transportation on this study. She's given the signal to start a demonstration of how connected vehicles could respond to a common danger: sudden braking.
DONIA: Imagine you're driving along, doing a moderate speed - 35, 40 miles an hour - and there are two or three or four cars ahead of you.
SAMILTON: Now imagine the driver in the front car turns a corner and suddenly hits the brakes.
DONIA: Not only is our view of that sudden braking impeded by the traffic between us...
SAMILTON: Which is bad enough.
DONIA: ...possibly the traffic between us doesn't realize that that car has slammed on its brakes as well.
SAMILTON: Now imagine you're the latest victim of a multiple car pileup.
Luckily, these cars are equipped with radio transmitters and receivers, and audio, visual and tactile warnings. Ten times a second, the cars transmit their location, speed and direction. So when the car in front randomly slams on the brakes, Donia has extra seconds to respond.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hard braking ahead.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
SAMILTON: Soon, nearly 3,000 Ann Arbor motorists will have some version of the devices on their cars. For a year, they'll travel their usual ways, occasionally crossing paths.
The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute or UMTRI will study how the technology works in real life. UMTRI Director Peter Sweatman thinks the potential to save lives is huge.
PETER SWEATMAN: Motor vehicle injuries and fatalities are the number one public health problem in this country. I don't think people realize that. Between the ages of 1 and 35, that's the number one cause of death.
SAMILTON: And most of those accidents are caused by human error. The technology isn't without its risks. Many people are already distracted when they drive. That could get worse if people become complacent about the need to watch the road. And there's the philosophical objection because now it's the car telling the driver what to do.
Eddie Alterman is editor-in-chief of Car and Driver magazine.
EDDIE ALTERMAN: Isn't that kind of un-American? I mean, what would Teddy Roosevelt say about this? What happened to the rugged individualist?
SAMILTON: Alterman says this is all too Big Brother for his taste. But his fears weren't widely shared among people who tried out connected cars on closed courses in earlier tests. This study has its limits, and it's early in the process. It could be decades before a truly connected vehicle future arrives.
Even when it does, it may never replace the hands down best lifesaving device invented so far: the seatbelt.
For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton in Ann Arbor.