published Sunday, February 16th, 2014

Kennedy: What happens when vehicles begin to talk

Mark my words: A hundred years from now, getting injured in a car accident will seem far-fetched.

Part of my job at the newspaper is test driving new cars, and the array of safety features available now is incredible. There are cars that vibrate your bottom if you accidentally cross the center line, cars that monitor your blind spots, and cars that automatically apply the brakes if you are about to rear-end a Buick.

All this technology, though, will seem quaint once cars actually learn to communicate — you know, talk among themselves.

And that’s just around the corner.

The federal government is testing technology that will eventually lead to cars that can talk. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has just completed a pilot program in Ann Arbor, Mich., involving 3,000 vehicles that can communicate via Wi-Fi using transponders. The shorthand for this is “vehicle-to-vehicle communication,” or V2V.

For instance, if a car is about to run a red light, it might emit the equivalent of a Rebel yell, audible only to other cars. Or a disabled vehicle stalled on a blind curve might send out a distress call — a little electronic yelp, if you will — that will warn drivers in approaching cars to slow down.

Is it too much to hope that a car might sense its driver is texting and shout out a warning to others: “Idiot on board”? Or will it refuse to start if it smells booze on your breath?

Experts believe V2V technology will help drivers avoid up to 80 percent of all traffic accidents. Early on, cars will be equipped with beepers and flashing dashlights to give their drivers extra seconds to react to road perils. Eventually, though, systems might be perfected to actually steer and brake a car out of harm’s way.

I was daydreaming about this talking cars stuff the other day and it occurred to me that there might be tons of unintended consequences. For example, once cars learn to talk, what’s to stop them from taking on unflattering human traits?

Will we have gossiping Gallants, lying Lexuses and crabby Caddys? Will our Nissans turn into nags (Change my oil now!), and our Hondas into hypochondriacs (Oh, my aching brakes)? Will our Fords get bored and our Subarus get surly?

Will the GPS systems in male cars refuse to ask the satellite for directions? Will female cars require bumper bras? (Don’t laugh, they make them.)

And once cars can talk, who’s to say they will always engage in polite conversation? If you think road rage is bad now, try cutting in front of a Hummer that can talk. For some reason, I think all Hummers will sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger: “Hasta la vista, Miata!”

And what about the language barrier? Will VWs speak German and Toyota’s Japanese?

How’d you like to trade in a car that begs you all the way to the dealership not to sell it to strangers? Or complains when you smell up its cabin with day-old Krystals?

There’s something to be said for keeping inanimate objects inanimate.

So, enjoy the silence, while still you can.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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