1 of 7
Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
UDOT Director John Njord has been in on discussions to create a virtual traffic network.

It sounds like it could be the setup for a comedian's punch line:

"Two Mercedes are driving down the road when the one Mercedes says to the other…"

Except it's no joke and actually describes a world just around the corner.

Once purely the stuff of dreams, the technology that lets a pair of similarly equipped Mercedes-Benzes, or two Cadillac Escalades, for that matter, communicate with each other about potentially dangerous road conditions, or traffic snarls, has already been developed, said Utah Department of Transportation Director John Njord.

A caboodle of safety- and convenience-related innovations, in fact, await as federal and state transportation officials and automakers work to set standards that will give rise to a futuristic highway Internet.

Njord, who has been in on discussions to create this virtual traffic network, says cars and highways will be able to communicate with each other using Direct Short Range Communications — or DSRC — on a dedicated 5.9-gigahertz frequency set aside by the Federal Communications Commission for transportation uses.

DSRC protocol combines Radio Frequency Identification — or RFID — and wireless technologies to allow vehicles to send and receive messages via roadside sensors, which have an approximate range of about 1,000 meters, or the equivalent of about six-tenths of a mile. Vehicles serve as both transmitters and receivers, while roadside sensors attached to a tower configuration act as routers tying the system together. Localized warnings can bounce back and forth, detailing accidents, malfunctioning traffic signals, construction zones, icy or dangerous patches of road and traffic jams.

DSRC also can share alerts directly between vehicles. For example, if one car applies its brakes, a DSRC device could inform other drivers, decreasing chances of an accident. DSRC could even trigger a vehicle's automatic braking system.

Costly infrastructure

This motoring future won't come cheap. Installing needed infrastructure will require massive capital outlays by federal, state and local governments that will run into the tens of billions of dollars and perhaps more, Njord said.

Nile Easton, UDOT's director of communications, said upward of 250,000 wireless roadside towers are being proposed for installation along the nation's freeways, highways, rural roads and at major intersections at a cost of between $2 billion and $3 billion. And that's just for starters.

But Njord believes the payoff in safety is easily worth the cost when considering that 235 people died on Utah's highways in 2009, based on UDOT's preliminary tally.

Think of vehicles that no longer crash, Njord said, or are equipped with technology that helps to significantly reduce the number of crashes. "It's a huge investment, but the opportunities are exceptional. How small could we make that (fatality) number? Could we cut it in half? A quarter? Or eliminate it altogether?"

He said experimental stretches of DSRC are already employed around the Detroit area and in parts of California. Toyota announced last fall that it would soon be unveiling its latest DSRC system on a still-unnamed vehicle in its home market.

Further buildout will come down to that familiar chicken and egg, which is why Njord doubts much will happen until there have been tangible commitments by the public sector. Because of how closely automakers review their costs for each car, they don't want to deploy something only to find out it's never going to happen, Njord said. "That's why none of them has pulled that trigger yet."

Once highway departments around the country begin installing the DSRC infrastructure, the auto industry has pledged to include compatible hardware, including GPS at a cost of about $100 per unit, in its vehicles.

This rather open-ended agreement likely means plenty of bumps along the road to implementation in the coming decade and beyond. Think back to the oft-delayed switch from analog to digital TV for a recent comparison.

Hold the future

When carmakers peer into the future with little consideration to their bottom lines, they have a tendency to think grandiosely. As a result, the motoring public has been teased for years by talk of tomorrow's highways.

Attendees at the General Motors' Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair, for example, were invited to look into the future — 1960 to be exact — and were told of a driving world in which traffic powered smoothly along at 100 mph with electronic assistance and safe stopping distances maintained by automatic radio control.

Failure to achieve little of that earlier vision didn't deter the automaker from making even more high-falutin' pronouncements a quarter of a century later at the 1964 World's Fair. At Futurama II, GM touted a computer-controlled automobile in which passengers could travel to their destinations in record times by eliminating human error.

The next big thing for America's roadways was intended to be the Automated Highway System, or AHS — magnetic spikes driven into roads that would guide cars separated only a few feet to maximize traffic flows. Despite offering real promise in the 1990s, AHS ultimately succumbed to logistics, cost and expediency. Fortunately, one of the alternatives proposed at the time was the Intelligent Vehicle Initiative, which became the forerunner for much of what's now taking place.

Critical mass

Admittedly, we're probably many years away from flying, foldaway cars like the one George Jetson pilots to work in Cartoon Network reruns, yet necessary advancements for smarter cars and highways appear to be reaching critical mass.

Many features (flamethrower excluded) found on David Hasselhoff's futuristic "Knight Rider" car from the mid-1980s are actually being incorporated into today's production models as automobiles go increasingly digital. Now multiple automakers offer similar systems as pricey options, which is how most of this gee-whiz gadgetry gets its start.

Take Adaptive Cruise-Control, which automatically slows a car down if its radar or laser systems detect you tailgating. Audi offered it as a $2,100 option on its 2009 S5 model. Acura offers a similar system.

But BMW may have outdone itself recently with the introduction of its 2011 5 Series, offering as either optional or standard equipment: Parking Assistant, top view cameras, Frontal Collision Warning, Blind Spot Warning, Lane Departure Warning and BMW Night Vision with Pedestrian Detection.

"We're seeing small incremental improvements — a trickling of technology one manufacturer at a time," Njord said. He cites GM's OnStar hands-free cellular system as a mass-market baby step toward the future. Critical safety features, such as Electronic Stability Control, which prevents cars from rolling over, are also working their way down into less-expensive models much as anti-lock braking did.

Njord said he's also seen demonstrations of other revolutionary safety gear, such as cameras placed in side-view mirrors that can spot and follow lane lines and electronic rumble strips that alert you when a dash cam, or other device trained on your eyes, discovers you nodding off at the wheel.

Electronic tolling

UDOT is tiptoeing into the future by installing a $14 million electronic tolling system to charge drivers who want to use I-15's high-occupancy vehicle lanes as a convenience, rather than for carpooling or riding a motorcycle.

The new system, scheduled to be operational later this fall, utilizes electronic RFID. Antenna boxes placed about 20 feet above the lanes will send radio signals to credit card-sized transponders mounted on vehicle windshields, said David Kinnecom, UDOT traffic management engineer, when announcing the project last September.

Before a driver enters an HOV lane, signs will alert the driver to rates currently being charged. The cost of each zone will depend on traffic, Kinnecom said. There will be four HOV zones: from American Fork to 14600 South, from 14600 South to 7200 South, from 7200 South to Beck Street and from Farmington to Layton.

"It would be set dynamically, meaning it would be sensitive to the actual speed in the express lane and the volume of traffic," Kinnecom said. "The idea is to preserve an acceptable speed in the express lane. But as traffic becomes more dense, the rate would go up to discourage excessive use."

UDOT's plan is not without detractors. Sen. Karen Morgan, D-Salt Lake, for one, is questioning whether the price tag for the tolling system is too large given current depressed state revenues. Her doubts also underscore the fiscal reality highway visionaries also must navigate en route to the future.

Electronic tolling is just one of the 21st-century technologies highway designers and automakers have in their toolboxes.

Ten states (Utah is not one of them) deploy the Condition Acquisition and Reporting Systems — or CARS — that was developed by the Ford Motor Co. as the basis for the next generation of travel advisory networks.

Registered CARS users can access the system from any location using a Web browser to report or view reports on highway and traffic conditions entered by other users across their state.

Since 2004, Minnesota state police cars, ambulances and government vehicles have been equipped with CARS sensing devices that collect information such as speed, location and direction of travel and transmit it wirelessly to a data center where it's reviewed and disseminated as weather and traffic advisories. CARS sensors are also able to record information on outside temperatures, along with usage of windshield wipers, headlights and traction-control systems.

Human factor

Stanford computer and robotics scientist Sebastian Thrun has been in the vanguard of pioneering and promoting self-driving vehicles. He estimates that within the next two decades, about half of new cars sold will offer the option of turning over basic driving duties to a computer. The question is whether humans will be willing to surrender the wheel.

"We humans usually feel that we are the best at everything we do, that we can safely drive ourselves. But tens of thousands of people die every year," Thrun said. "We need to be open to having technology assist us, to find ways in which technology makes us safer."

Thrun reminds us that cars are still relatively young — maybe 80 years old as a social phenomenon. So it's important to keep the bigger picture in focus. "Just think 50 years ahead. There's no question that 50 years from now we'll have the technology for autonomous cars (that drive themselves)," Thrun predicted in a 2005 interview with NOVA.

He said the infrastructure needed for self-driving cars is still lacking. "We won't have autonomy tomorrow morning. We'll have a driver-assist system that helps a little bit to avoid obstacles, and then we'll go further . … The day in the future when my car commutes for me — and I can sit there, read the newspaper, do e-mail in the car while the car is driving itself — that will be the ultimate victory," he said.

Then maybe, just maybe, those earlier Futurama promises of cars that drive themselves faster and more safely will finally be in our rearview mirror.

Contributing: Laura Hancock