July 15, 2014 at 12:40 pm

Obama touts 'vehicle to vehicle' technology, urges for road repair funding

Washington — President Barack Obama hailed cutting-edge “vehicle to vehicle” technology that could cut up to 80 percent of all road deaths as he urged Congress to quickly approve funding for road repairs.

The revolutionary technology could reshape how Americans drive and dramatically reduce the costs of the annual 32,000 road deaths or more and 2 million injuries — crashes that cost society more than $800 billion annually.

Standing behind two Jeep Cherokees and a 2013 Cadillac SRX, Obama said Tuesday the technology could revolutionize driving, save countless lives and reduce wasted fuel by helping reduce traffic congestion.

“As the father of a daughter who just turned 16, any new technology that makes driving safer is important to me,” Obama said at a speech at a government research center in McLean, Va. “New technology that makes driving smarter is good for the economy.”

At the speech just outside Washington, Obama sat in a simulator housed in an old Saturn to experience the technology that allows cars to talk to one another to help avoid crashes. He said he drove nearly 90 miles an hour in the simulator and said he had a bit of a lead foot — telling the audience he hasn’t driven since taking office. He compared the simulator to “Knight Rider” — the 1980s TV show that featured a talking car.

Technically, Obama has driven at least twice — in 2011 at GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck plant he drove a Chevrolet Volt down an assembly line and he also drove former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’ Volt around the White House grounds.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said he will unveil a proposal to require the technology before the administration leaves office in 2017. He said Tuesday the technology is real.

“Talking cars are not just science fiction,” he said.

Teen drivers by far have the highest fatality rate among all drivers. States have taken steps to require more training by young drivers before allowing them unrestricted licenses.

He also said potholes were “wrecking” people’s cars after a bad winter.

Obama got a first-hand look at the technology that’s been tested in the Ann Arbor area.

The speech offered Obama’s most significant direct remarks on auto safety since taking office. Despite Toyota Motor Corp.’s sudden acceleration crisis in 2010 and GM ongoing ignition switch problem and massive recalls, Obama has said little about road safety during his tenure.

The 2013 Cadillac that Obama spoke in front of has had three recalls since last year — though not all 2013 models were included in all three recalls — and Obama made no mention of the issue.

Instead, he has repeatedly focused on his administration’s efforts to improve fuel efficiency and the fact that the administration saved General Motors and Chrysler Group LLC as part of the $85 billion auto bailout.

The White House said the speech was aimed at “vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication technology to improve safety and mobility on our nation’s roadways and help reduce wasted fuel. V2V holds great promise.”

The speech comes against the backdrop of a big push by the administration this week to convince Congress to extend funding for road repairs — since the highway trust fund is forecast to be insolvent in August, requiring the Transportation Department to send partial payments. Congress is debating how to provide funding to help the trust fund operate into next year, and Obama wants significantly more for road repairs and research efforts.

The White House has backed a House bill that would provide enough money to keep the highway trust fund afloat until May. But Obama criticized it during the speech.

“Congress shouldn’t pat itself on the back for averting disaster for a few months,” he said.

Meanwhile in February, the U.S. Transportation Department said it plans to propose requiring all new cars and trucks to eventually communicate with one another, which could one day help reduce up to 80 percent of crash deaths where alcohol or fatigue weren’t factors.

The Transportation Department in August 2013 completed a 12-month, $25 million study of 3,000 vehicles in the Ann Arbor area to see if connected cars can help each other avoid crashes. During the past 15 months, more than 12 billion basic safety messages have been collected, and 60,000 interactions between participating vehicles have occurred.

The White House noted the research is being conducted through joint agreements with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and in partnership with eight major automotive manufacturers: Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co.., Honda Motor Co., Hyundai-Kia America Technical Center, Inc., Mercedes-Benz Research and Development North America, Inc., Nissan Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp., and Volkswagen Group of America, Inc.

The technology — which involves vehicles repeatedly sending wireless signals to each other — can help alert cars if an oncoming car is about to drive through a stop sign. It can detect threats from hundreds of yards away and tell drivers if they can pass safely or make a left turn. The Transportation Department has a pilot project in Arizona to test signals to sight-impaired pedestrians.

Last month, automakers criticized a bill proposed by two U.S. senators that would open part of the wireless spectrum to Internet access and purposes other than vehicle-to-communications that are the basis for self-driving cars and future accident-avoidance systems.

Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, introduced legislation Thursday to open the 5.9 GHz band to new uses called “the Wi-Fi Innovation Act.”

The Association of Global Automakers — which represents Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co and other foreign makers — said the bill is putting at risk the opportunity to save thousands of lives. “The lifesaving benefits of (vehicle-to-vehicle) communications are within reach,” said John Bozzella, president and CEO. “Given what’s at stake, an ill-informed decision on this spectrum is a gamble.”

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers — the trade group representing Detroit automakers, Volkswagen AG, BMW AG, Daimler AG and others — said it is reviewing the legislation and will work with the senators to resolve concerns.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com