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Why NHTSA's car-to-car communications plan is game-changer for safety

Why NHTSA's car-to-car communications plan is game-changer for safety
Morgan Stanley analysts Ravi Shanker and Adam Jonas estimate vehicle-to-vehicle communications could save the nation billions of dollars in traffic collision expenses. (DOT)

The decision by U.S. auto safety regulators to have automakers build cars that talk to one another will turn out to be one of the most cost-efficient safety initiatives in automotive history.

Morgan Stanley analysts Ravi Shanker and Adam Jonas estimate that the technology -- called vehicle-to-vehicle communications -- will add as little as $100 to the cost of a car but "will deliver a large portion of the $500 billion accident savings that we estimate from autonomous vehicles, sooner than expected," the analysts wrote in a report to investors.

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On Monday, the Transportation Department said it would begin to write the rules and standards for communications between cars.  Vehicles will tap a portion of the radio spectrum to speak in short-range radio signals, trading messages that would prevent accidents on a broad scale, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a division of the Transportation Department.

"We believe this is just the first step towards automated active safety wherein the system will not only detect but also prevent accidents on its own," the analysts said.

Though some of the most advanced cars already use sensors to detect cars or fixed objects ahead, and alert drivers and in some cases trigger the brakes or make steering adjustments, this would makes vehicles interactive safety stewards.  A stopped car could theoretically send a signal to warn another car (and driver) that's speeding in its direction. Cars could also engage in something like group discussions, exchanging facts about speed, direction and traffic conditions as fast as 10 times a second.

"In its initial application, the technology will only alert the driver but not automatically control the vehicle in situation of imminent collision," the analysts said. "We believe this is just the first step towards automated active safety wherein the system will not only detect but also prevent accidents on its own."

Although many automakers are experimenting with the technology, the government needed to provide manufacturers with a regulatory framework to move forward, the analysts wrote.

NHTSA officials said they plan to have the rules and standards written before President Obama leaves office in early 2017.

Shanker and Jonas said that as V2V technology finds its way into cars, consumers "get used to the technology and most importantly enable a vast network of information ready for a fully autonomous car to use when it hits the road, by our estimate, before the end of the decade."

The potential for saving lives is huge, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Monday. He estimates that V2V communications could prevent about 80% of the more than 30,000 traffic fatalities that occur in the U.S. annually.

"This is just the beginning of a revolution in roadway safety," Foxx said.

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