William Clay “Bill” Ford Jr., the executive chairman of Ford Motor Company and great grandson of Henry Ford has an eye on the forthcoming gridlock problem, already an existing problem for some – with the answer cars must talk to each other and to the road.

William C. "Bill" Ford, Jr

“If we do nothing, we face the prospect of ‘global gridlock,’ a never-ending traffic jam that wastes time, energy and resources and even compromises the flow of commerce and healthcare,” Ford said in a statement before giving a keynote address at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. “The cooperation needed between the automotive and telecommunications industries will be greater than ever as we prepare for and manage the future. We will need to develop new technologies, as well as new ways of looking at the world.”

In many urban areas and in all large ones the problem of gridlock is already here.  The number of vehicles in the world is climbing and can be expected to climb at an ever-accelerating rate for the foreseeable future.  This will be a major problem that can only get bigger, sixty percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2030, and there will be as many as an astonishing 2 billion cars on the road.

Many metropolitan Americans and lots of urban dwellers worldwide, China in particular, vividly understand the roads are close to and sometimes past their saturation point.

Most of the major carmakers are researching connected vehicle technology, which would use GPS, wireless and radar technology to ease congestion, increase safety and save time.  All of those will save on fuel use and money.

Research is showing the only way to ease congestion is with vehicle-to-vehicle communication. One eye-opener is a German study that found just five cars per thousand communicating with one another could significantly reduce gridlock.  One probably would have an advantage being one of the five.

Many experts in the auto industry are reported to believe that developing intelligent vehicles and semi- or even fully autonomous vehicles could be tools against congestion.  But that is a kind of driver control system.

Add to that a somewhat suspect assertion from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration who’s alleging connecting our cars could address as many as 4.3 million crashes, or about 80 percent of accidents that don’t involve intoxicated drivers.  That may be optimistic in view of the competency of drivers in general.

Mr. Ford, who is a “Ford” after all offered his company’s “Blueprint for Mobility” as an example of the kind of thinking looking for answers. The blueprint highlights the need for smarter transportation infrastructure including “intelligent” cars that communicate with each other and with the road via wireless networks. Such advancements will require cooperation between the automotive and communications industries, which is why Ford took his message to the world’s largest mobile communications conference.

Ford’s viewpoint has a certain appeal, although all the ideas are in gestation, at least the Ford view suggests keeping more autonomy for the driver.

In an interview with London’s Financial Times Ford said vehicles should be seen “as pieces of a much bigger, richer network.” Specifically, cars of the future could rely on 802.11p WLAN, which is reserved for Vehicle-2-Vehicle. In the near future, connected cars would communicate with one another and with central traffic monitoring stations that could send warnings about congestion, construction and accidents to in-car navigation systems.

Holding on to driver autonomy might not be possible looking further into the future.

Semi- or fully-autonomous vehicles will allow for smoother traffic flow and fewer accidents. Already, projects such as Europe’s SARTRE road train trials are proving that cars following closely at safe speeds can maximize highway capacity and reduce congestion. And MIT researchers developed a mathematical model that can predict which cars will run red lights, which can be used to warn other Vehicle-2-Vehicle connected cars.

There is a certain appeal to the connected self-operating car.  Even outside the congested areas, the choice to relax and let the connected computer do the constant attention and corrections has great appeal.

On the point though, no solution will prevent congestion forever, nor can they be as efficient as well-run public transit systems for moving large numbers of people efficiently.  We doubters suggest implementing the technology to create networked vehicles will require an almost unattainable level of global standardization and cooperation with substantial amounts of money both for the community and the vehicle operators.

Some very cool efforts are already underway. Volvo has successfully tested semi-autonomous “road trains,” and next year Germany will launch real-world tests of connected car technology using vehicles from three carmakers.

One might hope Mr. Ford is right.  The implication, or metaphor is we’d be driving like data moves on the Internet.  That idea would give us choices from calculations that have real time information on what is where, going where, with what’s in the way and forecasts built up over time that would apply to the circumstances.

Driving in congested urban areas is already densely controlled, it might not be government or systems now, rather it’s just the intensity of individual choices being made by the thousands of drivers per second.  Sometimes it’s a wonder anyone gets anywhere. Then again, it’s a marvel to see a time-lapse video.

But there is a limit to how tight the congestion can get before there isn’t any room to move.  Urban folks better hope a lot of political types and city planning folks get on a good path and soon.


Comments

1 Comment so far

  1. Matt Musson on February 29, 2012 7:42 AM

    The Government is already dealing with the problem by gradually making it too expensive to drive. They have pumped up the price of used cars and done everything they can to increase the price of oil (while professing the opposite). They are also taking away our air conditioning and heating by making it too expensive to be comfortable in our own homes. Soon, only the rich and the apparatchiks will be able to travel or sit home with the AC on.

    Of course, like the frog who is sitting in water that is slowly getting hotter – we don’t realize we are getting cooked until it’s too late.

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