The federal government is studying a new technology that would allow automobiles to communicate with each other wirelessly as they travel along roadways and provide drivers with warnings that could help prevent collisions.

A pilot program scheduled to launch this August in Ann Arbor, Mich., will help the feds decide whether to proceed with developing the technology, which it’s been examining for about 10 years.

The idea is to equip cars with radios that can transmit up to 10 messages per second to vehicles around them using a signal similar to Wi-Fi. Cars would also be equipped with devices that can receive and interpret those signals in order to convey warnings to drivers.

Hypothetically, if you’re driving and there’s someone cruising in your blind spot, that vehicle would send a signal to your own car that conveys its position. Inside your car, a radio would receive that signal and then prompt a flashing light or sound to warn you not to change lanes. Experts say the technology could also help drivers prevent rear-end collisions, T-bone crashes, and several other types of accidents.

U.S. Department of Transportation officials are hoping the technology could be the next big thing for auto safety. Already, the country has made great strides on that front. From 2005 to 2009, the number of fatal auto collisions fell by 20 percent. But auto crashes are still the leading cause of death among people ages 5 to 34.

Federal officials contracted with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute to conduct the pilot, which will last for a year. It features 2,800 cars, trucks and buses equipped with the technology, and eight auto manufacturers are participating. Drivers were recruited with the promise of donations to their local PTAs. The idea was to make sure the drivers frequently use their cars in order to ensure researchers got lots of data. Soccer moms who shuttle their kids to school and activities proved to be the perfect fit.

The technology would have significant implications for local governments. Traffic signals could change their timing based on the volume of vehicles on the roadway. But local governments would likely need to upgrade their infrastructure to facilitate the new technology. The feds are working with manufacturers of traffic signal controllers to see if they can arrange to have transmitters built into their products in order to ease that transition, says Shelley Row, director of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office. State and local governments likely won’t have rewrite their traffic laws to accommodate the new technology, Row says.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will use information learned from the pilot to decide in late 2013 how to proceed with the connected vehicle technology. It could scrap the project, allow automakers to voluntarily install the systems, or mandate it in all new vehicles.

If it goes with the third option, the implications would be huge. “If NHTSA chooses to go that route, the minute they make that decision, it will spark the industry,” Row says. “We’ll see the auto industry and the supplier industry move much more aggressively to make this come into being.” If the technology is adopted, it would likely be phased in over time. Newer vehicles would be integrated with the systems, and older vehicles could be equipped with after-market add-ons.

Row expects the technology to be a hit with automakers and consumers alike. Some newer vehicles are already equipped with video cameras and radar systems that try to accomplish many of the same safety goals as the wireless communication. But the radio devices might be more practical. “It’s probably cheaper, and it’s more capable,” Row says. “It can do things that radar and other systems can’t do.”

Row says the Department of Transportation is aware of the privacy concerns surrounding the technology and takes them seriously. The only time the system will be able to identify individual vehicles is when it needs to shut down their transmitters because of malfunctions, she says. “We have not designed a system to be used for enforcement,” Row says. “We worked with privacy advocacy groups from the first day of this program.”

This story was originally published on Governing.com.

Ryan Holeywell  |  Contributing Writer