The first image that comes into your head when talking cars are mentioned is probably the smiling face of Lightning McQueen from the Disney Pixar film Cars, voiced by Owen Wilson.

In reality though the concept of 'talking' cars is less fun-filled but a lot more useful and could save thousands of lives every year. A new crash warning system that uses WiFi and GPS to enable vehicles to communicate with each other allows vehicles to communicate their location with other vehicles and provide early warnings should an accident look likely.

The technology has been demonstrated to federal officials with the aim of getting it adopted for use by automakers.

The system works up to 900 feet away and uses specialized WiFi signals emitted ten times every second to alert other vehicles of a car's presence. If a collision is imminent, the system warns the driver through flashing red lights and beeps.

On the face of it the system may seem redundant for any driver looking where they're going, but not every road you drive on is clear and open. Warnings can be provided for cars around blind corners, at intersections and if visibility is impaired by weather or other vehicles - all providing a useful early warning.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported in October that vehicle-to-vehicle warning systems could address nearly 80 percent of reported crashes not involving drunk drivers. As such, it could potentially save tens of thousands of lives per year.

As always, the main hurdle with technology relying on more than one vehicle is whether other vehicles are fitted with it or not. For this reason, safety groups are pushing for the technology to become mandatory by 2013, the date federal officials are scheduled to decide whether such systems are required.

The WiFi tech has advantages over the more common radar systems currently used for adaptive cruise control or Volvo's pedestrian avoidance systems. The first advantage is cost - radar cruise control systems often cost upwards of $1,000. WiFi is much cheaper, as demonstrated by its usage in computers and cell phones for picking up mobile internet signals.

Michael Shulman, technical leader for the WiFi project at Ford who conducted the demonstration, describes how the low price would allow customers at any price-point to benefit: "We want to be able to sell this on the Fiestas as well as the Lincolns".

It also works in situations where radar doesn't, such as when an obstacle is in the way. Radar would detect the obstruction but not whatever was behind it - noticing the wall but not the speeding vehicle about to emerge, for example. This makes WiFi more effective as an early warning system.

There are still technical hurdles to overcome, such as coping with "channel loading" where more than 100 cars are within the system's radius, or making the system impervious to hackers intent on triggering false warnings and disrupting traffic.

The technology is seeing heavy investment though, with $40 million spent so far and another $36 million set aside for further research, so by 2013 we should know whether it will follow other safety systems such as anti-lock brakes and stability control into mandatory fitment.

[Washington Post]