Is the average motorist willing to trust a car's computer to stay out of trouble -- even to the point of letting the computer slam on the brakes? The U.S. Department of Transportation wants to find out.
This month, a group of volunteers will climb behind the wheels of a test fleet of cars on a course laid out on the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich.
The cars' computers will communicate their speed and locations to each other with short-range wireless devices and will monitor traffic signals. The computers will warn the motorists of upcoming hazards such as a car making a left-hand turn in an intersection. If the motorist fails to take evasive action, the vehicles would automatically hit the brakes.
The technology essentially is the next logical step for intelligent cruise control. Some luxury cars equipped with these systems can hit the brakes automatically if the motorist is distracted.
But if the vehicles also can "talk" to each other, the car computers gain precious extra time to warn the driver and take evasive action, if necessary.
But will motorists freak out if their car computer triggers a panic stop? That's what DOT wants to find out with its so-called connected vehicle drive clinics.
The transportation department will ask 100 volunteers to drive those vehicles on closed courses in Brooklyn, Mich.; Dallas; San Francisco; Orlando; Brainerd, Minn.; and Blacksburg, Va.
The government will share the results with eight participating automakers: Ford Motor Co., General Motors, Honda Motor Co, Hyundai Motor Co., Daimler AG, Nissan Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and Volkswagen AG.
Automakers have organized a larger test in Germany, where 400 cars equipped with vehicle-to-vehicle communications will cruise the streets of Frankfurt. One hundred vehicles will perform a variety of tests, while 300 volunteers will use vehicles for normal day-to-day chores.
Volkswagen, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Opel and Ford -- as well as Bosch and Continental -- are participating in the experiment, which will be conducted in 2012.
Ford is contributing 20 vehicles to the effort, said Thorsten Wey, Ford of Europe's supervisor of driver assistance technologies. The automaker also will do its own tests in 2013 on its test track in Belgium.
With those tests, Ford and other automakers want to find out what type of warning is best suited for motorists. The computer might trigger a visual or audible warning to alert the motorist. Or the steering wheel could vibrate or the brakes might jerk to get the motorist's attention.
"You need to understand what the driver will do with your warning," Wey said. "Then you can start to optimize your approach."
Car-to-car communications systems gain effectiveness when local governments install smart traffic signals that can "talk" to vehicles, Wey said. But upgraded roadside signals and signs require a significant investment. "Everybody is working on it," he noted, "but it will be some time before the investment really starts."