Systems keep vehicles more plugged in than drivers.

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In the first half of 2016, traffic deaths in the United States rose 10.4 percent, according to the National Highway Safety Administration. That’s 17,775 people in six months. The fact that Americans drove some 3.3 percent more than in the same period of 2015 explains only some of the rise.

Car-to-car communication (also called C2C, vehicle-to-vehicle or V2V) is poised to change that fatal trend.

What exactly is car-to-car communication? Put simply, sensors and a processor monitors events like steering wheel position, use of the anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control triggers and windshield wiper speed to name a few. Exterior feedback such as global positioning, speed, temperature, and pedestrian detection is gathered too.

That information is then broadcast over the 75 MHz of spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band to other cars within 300 yards or so. It could warn you if a driver ahead has slammed on his or her brakes, providing a few extra precious seconds to react and avoid impact. It can also predict that, at your current rate of speed, you’ll run a red light ahead (though I’m not sure how it deals with yellow ones).

By transmitting traction control and wiper speed info, it alerts other drivers that they might be headed into adverse weather conditions. All this data builds a detailed picture of what’s happening in the area around your car. These are situations that even the best driver or sensor system can miss. Ultimately it will help autonomous vehicles.

This technology has already gone through real-world tests in the wild.

Debby Bezzina, the senior program manager of the Ann Arbor Connected Vehicle Test Environment, believes car-to-car tech will save lives. Starting in 2012, the Ann Arbor program installed basic C2C systems in over 2,800 vehicles in the Michigan community. All data events were recorded and the cars were equipped with cameras to provide front, rear and cabin views to help researchers figure out how drivers responded to alerts.

Bezzina says the program was positive. “All data was sent to independent evaluators to ensure accuracy of the results, and drivers were given a survey to evaluate the system. In general, users did like it.” The Ann Arbor program is currently the largest free-range test and more are coming to Florida, Wyoming and Ohio.

The obvious drawback is a lack of cars with operational C2C systems. Bezzina believes 2021 will be the tipping point. She says “aftermarket units will be available for existing cars. Our systems took about an hour to install after we had some experience doing it.”

Currently the federal government is drafting regulations to define when new vehicles will be required to have vehicle-to-vehicle capability. It could be as soon as 2019.

Some systems are already in use. Mercedes-Benz has equipped its new E-Class with V2V features that use a different approach. Nick Schwartz, product manager at MBUSA, says, “Instead of broadcasting on the spectrum assigned for C2C technology, our system sends all event information up into the cloud via a LTE network. It’s then provided to vehicles within a 10-mile radius.”

Volvo uses a similar approach in Sweden and Norway with its 90 Series vehicles.

Kevin Kelly, advanced technology communications manager at General Motors, says its first car with C2C tech will be the Cadillac CTS. Unlike the Mercedes and Volvo systems, Kelly says “it will operate on the spectrum that V2V works on.”

Some Audi Q7 and A4 models now come with vehicle-to-infrastructure
integration (or V2I). Audi’s system receives data from a city’s advanced traffic management system that controls stoplights. While waiting at a connected intersection, the cars’ display shows the time remaining until the traffic light turns green. It’s up and running in Seattle. Other uses of V2I include e-parking and toll payment.

Pom Malhotra, general manager at Audi Connected Vehicles, explains, “In the future we could envision this technology integrated into vehicle navigation and engine start/stop functionality. It can even be used to help improve traffic flow in municipalities.”

All this monitoring raises security issues. And threats from hackers are all too real. Imagine the chaos and danger resulting from a saboteur shutting down just a few hundred cars on roads in each U.S. city.

Security specs include “firewalls” between the C2C modules and vehicle modules like ignition and steering.