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“That car came out of nowhere.”

That’s something people say after a near miss – or a crash.

But that car came from somewhere. You just couldn’t see it in time.

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Maybe you were at an intersection and your view to the left was blocked by a parked truck. So you went through – and then you got T-boned by that car from nowhere.

So, what if that car let you know it was coming?

Enter the connected car – which would be able to broadcast what it’s doing and hear the same signals from other cars.

As well as surrounding vehicles, the technology would also let cars talk to infrastructure, such as street lights, pedestrian signals and roadside cameras.

Jason Tchir/The Globe and Mail

“They’re beacons,” said Jovan Zagajac, Ford’s connected vehicle technology manager. “They keep telling everybody else, ‘Hey, I’m here. Here’s my speed. I’m going in this direction’ – 10 times a second.”

The technology wouldn’t just let cars talk to each other (Vehicle-to-Vehicle, or V2V, communication), it would also let them talk to infrastructure such as street lights, pedestrian signals and roadside cameras (Vehicle-to-Infrastructure, or V2I). Eventually, cars will get similar information from cellphones carried by pedestrians and cyclists (Vehicle-to-Everything, or V2X).

To show off the tech’s crash-prevention potential, Ford engineer John Cardillo took a Ford Taurus – a prototype with a trunkful of gadgets with wires leading to two antennas on the roof – through a course of staged dangers, including that blind intersection.

Advanced warning

As Cardillo drove toward the intersection, his view blocked by a truck, the Taurus started beeping and an alert popped up on the screen warning of a collision risk from the left.

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He hit the brakes, and then a van, also equipped with the tech, suddenly came speeding from the left.

“Our two cars talked to each other so they were aware of each other’s trajectories,” Cardillo said.

Other alerts followed, including a car a half a block ahead slamming on its brakes: “We’ll know even if there’s a vehicle between us, so we can prevent a chain collision,” Cardillo said.

To show off the tech’s crash-prevention potential, Ford engineer John Cardillo took a Ford Taurus through a course of staged dangers, including a 'blind' intersection.

Jason Tchir/The Globe and Mail

And, when Cardillo signalled to turn left at an intersection, he got warned that an approaching car wasn’t slowing down. That’s for turns at amber lights where you’re not sure whether that coming car will stop.

The Taurus also got messages from a traffic signal (a countdown that a light was about to turn amber) and from a pedestrian crossing sign, both equipped with transmitters.

“The pedestrian pressed a button, but you can imagine a future where their personal cellphone transmits that directly,” Cardillo said.

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The demo also included a peek into a Panasonic project with Colorado’s Department of Transportation (CDOT). It has installed roadside transmitters along a stretch of Interstate 70 that will talk with transmitter-equipped cars in their fleet.

If a car’s airbag deploys, for instance, CDOT will be notified and be able to send out an alert about a nearby accident to other transmitter-equipped cars in the area.

“A variable message sign that you see out on the road today on average costs about $300,000,” said Amy Ford, CDOT chief of advanced mobility. “So I don’t have to put up a $300,000 sign because I can put up a $5,000 [transmitter] – and put one up every mile.”

Mixed signals?

So why don’t cars have it now? For one thing, it’s not required – U.S. plans to mandate it have been put on hold.

And for the tech to work in real life, cars from different companies would need to be able to talk to each other.

But right now, there are two different technologies that let cars talk: Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC), which has been around for more than 20 years, and 5G-based Cellular Vehicle to Everything (C-V2X), a standard adopted last year.

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Some companies, including Ford, Audi, BMW and Nissan are running trials using C-V2X, although nobody has announced when it might appear in a production vehicle.

But others, including Toyota and General Motors, have committed to DSRC. Toyota has sold DSRC-equipped cars in Japan since 2015 and announced plans to sell them in the United States by 2021.

One advantage to C-V2X? It can hear signals from cars three kilometres away – that’s two to four times further than DSRC, Zagajac said.

“If you’re trying to pass a large truck and there’s a car zooming toward you, the further off you can hear, the better you are,” he said.

For C-V2X to work, you won’t need to be subscribed to a particular network – just like DSRC, it works directly between cars, without a cellphone tower.

There are still challenges ahead, such as making sure the tech doesn’t distract drivers with constant warnings.

And, ultimately, cars could exchange far more information, such as feed from cameras and various sensor data, to give better warnings – or, with semi-autonomous or autonomous tech, even take over from the driver.

Eventually, instead of acting just as beacons, cars might be able to have conversations with each other.

“One car would say, ‘Hey, I’m about to move into the centre lane,’ and the other car will say, ‘I’m about to do the same thing,’” Zagajac said. “And one car would take the lead. That ability is yet to be developed.”

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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