Connected cars will make driving safer, cleaner and more efficient. Their introduction should be speeded up
SINCE Henry Ford turned it into a mass-market product a century ago, the car has delivered many benefits. It has boosted economic growth, increased social mobility and given people a lot of fun. No wonder mankind has taken to the vehicle with such enthusiasm that there are now a billion automobiles on the world’s roads.
But the car has also brought many problems. It pollutes the air, creates congestion and kills people. An astonishing 1.24m people die, and as many as 50m are hurt, in road accidents each year. Drivers and passengers waste around 90 billion hours in traffic jams each year. In some car-choked cities as much as a third of the petrol used is burned by people looking for a space to park.
Fortunately, an emerging technology promises to make motoring safer, less polluting and less prone to hold-ups (see Technology Quarterly). “Connected cars”—which may eventually evolve into driverless cars but for the foreseeable future will still have a human at the wheel—can communicate wirelessly with each other and with traffic-management systems, avoid pedestrians and other vehicles and find open parking spots.
Some parts of the transformation are already in place. Many new cars are already being fitted with equipment that lets them maintain their distance and stay in a motorway lane automatically at a range of speeds, and recognise a parking space and slot into it. They are also getting mobile-telecoms connections: soon, all new cars in Europe will have to be able to alert the emergency services if their on-board sensors detect a crash. Singapore has led the way with using variable tolls to smooth traffic flows during rush-hours; Britain is pioneering “smart motorways”, whose speed limits vary constantly to achieve a similar effect. Combined, these innovations could create a much more efficient system in which cars and their drivers are constantly alerted to hazards and routed around blockages, traffic always flows at the optimum speed and vehicles can join up into “platoons” on the motorways, travelling closer together, yet with less risk of crashing.
Just as regulation has helped increase fuel efficiency, cut exhaust fumes and introduce anti-skid equipment, so government involvement is needed to get the connected car on the road. It is beginning to happen. Earlier this year, Europe’s standards-setting agencies agreed a common set of protocols for cars and traffic infrastructure to communicate. Others should follow. Governments should then set firm deadlines for all new cars to be fully connected and capable of platooning, and a date for existing cars to be retrofitted with a basic locator beacon and the ability to receive hazard warnings.
If cars are to connect, new infrastructure will have to be built. Roads and parking spaces will need sensors to monitor them; motorways will need dedicated lanes for platooning. But this will not necessarily be expensive. Upgrading traffic signals so they can be controlled remotely by a central traffic-management system is a lot cheaper than building new roads.
The sooner these changes are made, and cars are plugged into a smart traffic grid, the quicker Singaporean variable pricing—for parking as well as road use—can become the norm. Motorists will then have the incentive, as well as the ability, to avoid the busiest places at the busiest times, and the dreadful toll that roads take in human lives should start falling.
In the past, more people driving meant more roads, more jams, more death and more fumes. In future, the connected car could offer mankind the pleasures of the road with rather less of the pain.