July 26, 2013 at 3:33 AM ET
How do you reduce the number of highway accidents? Just tell all the cars to look out for each other.
As far out as that may sound, that's exactly what the National Transportation Safety Board recommended this week, following a fatal bus crash, and it's part of a fundamental shift in the automotive world.
Cars are already equipped with cutting-edge innovations such as accident-avoidance lasers and smart parking. Soon, they'll get wireless car-to-car communications, and even city-wide traffic control. And while most of these innovations will steer us to safer roads, they also raise some concerns over privacy and security the likes of which the century-old auto industry has never seen.
"It's clear the next few years will see greater expansion of in-car infotainment and navigation offerings, and technologies requiring communication between cars," Ray Wert, former editor-in-chief of the Jalopnik car blog, told NBC News.
"Some of that push will come from governmental regulation, while some will come from consumer demand. Either way, it's coming. And fast."
Built-in high-tech tools are nothing new, of course. Cruise control in some vehicles has for years been able to track other cars on the road — using radar, lasers or something more exotic — and adjust their speed or stop entirely if a collision is likely. Similar tech is sometimes used to warn drivers when they're drifting out of their lanes, perhaps when nodding off or trying to mop up spilled coffee.
More impressive are the automated parking systems already available from cars made by Ford, Toyota and others. Using a button or smartphone app to tell your car to park itself sounds very sci-fi — but for those with a fundamental inability to parallel park (you know who you are), it's a welcome reality.
The real next step in this surge of semi-automated, semi-aware cars is vehicle-to-vehicle communication.
"Effective countermeasures are needed to assist in preventing intersection crashes," notes the NTSB's official report on the crash. "For example, systems such as connected vehicle technology could have provided an active warning to the school bus driver of the approaching truck as he began to cross the intersection."
But how would such a system work?
The picture above (from the EO connected car project, covered in the video at top), illustrates how wirelessly connected vehicles can share the same space. They wouldn't just be beaming their plans directly to oncoming cars as they approach an intersection. Instead, they could also connect to a larger network that plans the cars' paths like an air traffic control system.
Bad visibility, blind spots, fatigue — these could be compensated for with a system that can tell you exactly how far away the next car is, and whether it's safe to go. The benefits of such a system, with every car aware of and communicating with every other car, are difficult to overstate. Any number of things might have prevented the crash in New Jersey, but such an inter-vehicle connection, preventing collisions in low-visibility areas, might have been a lifesaver.
And industry observers say this kind of technology is almost here. "We're in the final stages of testing, and it's up to us to say 'Yes, we are going to do this,'" said Egil Juliussen, IHS automotive technology analyst, in an interview with NBC News. Juliussen cautions that automakers have to be willing — or required — to take on such a system en masse.
"I think the decision should be that it is mandatory on all cars," he said. "If it's on just one car, it's useless."
The benefits are easy to imagine. A 2012 study found that cars working together on the road could increase efficiency by as much as 273 percent. This could be done both by careful routing at the city or even state level, but also by "platooning" vehicles closely together if they're headed to the same destination, increasing fuel efficiency.
But it's not just about getting to the game on time or shaving 10 minutes off your commute. Beyond preventing collisions while narrowing gaps between cars, this level of organization could route drivers around points of congestion, notify them of hazardous road conditions, and in case of accidents or car trouble, alert AAA or emergency responders instantly.
As this sort of system ramps up, accompanied by creature comfort features such as car-to-car messaging, performance-tweaking apps, and free parking space notifications, we will edge closer to the holy grail of intelligent vehicles: the totally autonomous car.
Though the real thing is still a bit far off, it's not for lack of investment. Google is likely the farthest along: Its self-driving cars have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles on their own through country and city with nary an accident.
The complex array of cameras and sensors on board may be too big and expensive to include on an entry-level Honda today — but you could have said the same thing about touchscreens and keyless entry a few years ago as well, and now these once-futuristic options are standard on budget cars. As for upsells, it only costs $395 to equip a Ford Focus Titanium with automatic parking, and a $1,750 technology package on a new Toyota Avalon will get you radar-assisted cruise control and smart "pre-collision" braking. It's only a matter of time before wireless car-to-car options become as prevalent — and affordable.
With all this increased connectivity, however, comes new risks. Stories of high-end cars being stolen with nothing more than a tweaked wireless key fob are common enough. And if your car is connected to the Internet (which many already are), the data is vulnerable to hacking. An upcoming presentation at this year's Defcon hacking conference is widely expected to lay bare many automotive vulnerabilities.
Yet even if you manage to secure the vehicle against hackers, who's to say your data is safe from, say, the NSA? Juliussen thinks we're not quite prepared for this.
"I really think that the U.S. needs to have much better privacy laws. The black box [which records crash data in newer cars] is bringing that up in a major way," he said. "It's up to Congress to do that ... you can't do it without."
Luckily, there's time. As Juliussen notes, even if wireless car-to-car networking were mandated on all new vehicles, it would take 10 years or more before it would really work well. Hopefully a decade is enough time to work out all of the kinks.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.