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The funny thing about science fiction is that it sometimes comes true. A late 1960's film was built around the ideas of placing satellites in geosynchronous orbit and the commercialization of space travel. A 1986 movie featured ground robots taking up arms. In 1997, another feature film made us think about the inevitable ethical questions that come with DNA identification and genetic profiling.

In the 1980s, a popular television show brought the idea of a talking car with artificial intelligence. At that time, the concept seemed just as impossible as space travel did in the '60s, or armored robots in the mid-'80s. But talking cars are out there now. Believe it or not, talking cars may someday even become commonplace.

As much fun as science fiction is, it's still a form of entertainment. Films and books play on the most dramatic aspects, the most far-fetched consequences, the best and worst possibilities that human nature and intelligence can manifest. Placing such technology into the mainstream is a different matter. In order for these kinds of innovations to hit the mass market, they need to pass rigorous testing, be cost-effective, appealing and reliable. A lot is at stake, particularly when it comes to automotive technology.

More than five million people are injured every year in accidents. Experts predict that in a little more than fifteen years, a billion cars will be on the road - and it's important that safety features are enhanced to handle the conditions that come with escalating roadway congestion. Much technology already exists to make roads a lot safer. Talking cars aren't science fiction anymore. In fact, there are several innovations that enable vehicles to communicate with their own internal systems, and others that will allow future vehicles to communicate with each other to help avoid crashes.

Pre-crash sensing systems use forward sensors to help predict imminent crashes and communicate with other in-vehicular systems to deploy countermeasures. These systems help to reduce crash energy and work with restraint systems to provide maximum benefits. Measures like deceleration not only allow drivers to react more effectively but may also reduce injuries to others involved.

Some safety systems, including active night vision, use infrared-sensitive cameras to provide images enhanced by near-infrared illuminators integrated into the headlights. The enhanced image can even appear on a head-up display. Lane departure warning alerts drivers when they drift out of their own lane and side alert systems warn them of vehicles in their side blind spots when they are changing lanes.

All of these innovations can be integrated with other vehicle systems including braking, throttle, and steering systems. Imagine a cocoon of safety around the vehicle - object detection sensors in the side panels, a combination of front and rear cameras, a 76 GHz electronically scanning forward radar, pre-crash sensors, airbags and seat belts - all working together to keep drivers and passengers as safe as possible. According to prominent researchers in automotive engineering, the convergence of control, communications and computations is making a dramatic impact on automotive design and development and is a major element in improving safety.

The recent allocation of wireless spectrum for vehicle-to-vehicle safety applications has also had a dramatic impact on research and standardization activity in the automotive industry. Wireless spectrum provides the opportunity for auto manufacturers to take safety features to an even higher level of functionality. By communicating at speeds far greater than human reaction time, vehicles may soon be able to communicate with other vehicles to help avoid crashes. Such onboard computational power makes multifaceted risk assessment and advice possible in real time.

So the secret geek comes out in all of us once in a while. Science fiction reminds us of all that is possible - where amazing and reality converge. It appeals to our sense of dream and wonderment, inspiring children to become the adults that make new technology possible. Industries are putting some of these applications to good use. Those talking cars that seemed to be destined only for fictional missions and high-speed television chases may soon help save lives in the real world.

Author : Mike Trudel