ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Now, to new technology in our cars. In 2009, over 30,000 Americans were killed in crashes. Most of those accidents were the result of driver error.
And now, as Brett Neely reports, the auto industry wants to cut down on traffic deaths using some commonplace technology.
BRETT NEELY: The car industry calls it vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology. This isn't exactly a new idea. This General Motors film from the 1939 World's Fair imagines a technology similar to what's finally making it onto roads today.
(Soundbite of film)
Unidentified Man: And now we see an enlarged section of 1960s express motorway. Safe distance between cars is maintained by automatic radio control.
NEELY: OK. So, they were off by a few decades, but they had the basic idea right, which is that most crashes are avoidable if drivers have enough time to react. To find out more, I went to an empty parking lot in Washington, D.C. and hopped in a car with Ford Motor Company engineer Joe Stinnett. We're following two other cars closely - too closely. It's the kind of scenario that often leads to those 60-car pileups you see on TV from time to time.
Mr. JOE STINNETT (Engineer, Ford Motor Company): So, we're just going to drive down to the end of the track here. At the end of the track, the lead vehicle is going to hit the brakes. So, you can imagine if this was a foggy or snowy day with limited visibility, this could be even worse.
NEELY: All three cars are equipped with a small GPS and Wi-Fi unit, just like inside a smartphone.
Ford is investing heavily in the technology and plans to launch a fleet of prototypes equipped with it this spring. It's pretty cheap, maybe $100 per car. And it lets the cars communicate things like latitude, longitude and speed with one another at a range of about 1,500 feet.
Mr. STINNETT: They're monitoring the positions of all the vehicles around you and trying to determine who is an immediate threat to your vehicle and what type of threat that vehicle is.
NEELY: If it looks like other cars are a threat, like the ones we're following too closely, this is what happens.
(Soundbite of beeping)
Mr. STINNETT: (Unintelligible) hit the brakes.
So, basically what you saw was you saw the lead vehicle brake lights go off and then you immediately saw the alert go off in this car, even before you had this vehicle ahead of you, before you saw their brake lights. So you get that advanced alert.
NEELY: Ford is working with most of the world's other major carmakers to turn this technology into a basic safety feature of every car. This vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology will be most effective if pretty much every car on the road is equipped with it.
University of Michigan safety expert, James Sayer, says giving drivers a few extra seconds of warning before a crash could dramatically reduce traffic accidents.
Professor JAMES SAYER (Safety Expert, University of Michigan): It still is the case that the weakest link is the driver, you know. The vast majority of errors in driving that lead to crashes are because of the driver. It's rarely the case that the wheel falls off.
NEELY: There is one concern about this technology that the auto industry is very sensitive to: privacy. After all, cars could soon be telling every other nearby car - and who knows who else - location, speed and where it's been in the past five minutes. Ford and other companies are trying to make that data as anonymous as possible.
Again, here's James Sayer.
Prof. SAYER: The fact that we walk around the streets with smartphones all the time means that, essentially, phone companies can track where we are if they wanted to. So I think there's lessening concern on the part of the public about the privacy.
NEELY: Limited trials will start later this year. If they're a success, the government could mandate that all cars be equipped with these devices before the decade is out.
For NPR News, I'm Brett Neely in Washington.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.