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Big Data: When Cars Can Talk

The roads would be safer if cars could exchange information about traffic conditions and bad drivers. But are we ready to sacrifice privacy to save lives?

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Big Data's Surprising Uses: From Lady Gaga To CIA
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Has this ever happened to you? You're cruising down the highway, moving with the flow, when a lane-splitting motorcyclist suddenly zips past, nearly sideswiping you at 90 mph. Situations like these too often result in traffic accidents. And the daredevil cyclist isn't the only road hazard out there. We've all encountered the distracted texter, the inebriated weaver -- maybe even the wild-eyed suspect in a police car chase.

Wouldn't it be nice to get a heads-up when bad drivers are approaching? An early-warning system that gives you enough time to take defensive action?

Technologies exist today to make this happen, as Intel research scientist Jennifer Healey made clear in a recent TED Talk on the potential benefits of cars that "gossip" with one another. By getting digital devices -- including GPS systems, stereo cameras, short-range radios, and two-dimensional laser range finders common in auto backup systems -- to exchange data and work together, a highway of communicating vehicles is very much a possibility.

[ InformationWeek's Mike Feibus has some marketing advice for the PC industry. Read PC Makers, Learn From Car Makers: Use Model Years. ]

"In the future, with cars exchanging data with each other, we will be able to see not just three cars ahead, (but also) three cars behind, to the right and left, all at the same time," said Healey. "We'll actually be able to see into those cars. We'll be able to see the velocity of the car in front of us to see how fast that guy is going."

With algorithms and predictive models, data-swapping cars will be able to predict future events as well. Intel researchers are even modeling "driver states" with a series of three cameras that detect a driver looking forward, looking down, or having a cup of coffee.

"We can predict the accident, and we can predict … which cars, are in the best position to move out of the way," Healey said.

Automobile manufacturers, of course, are gradually adding automation features to vehicles, including parking assist technologies and collision-avoidance systems that can automatically apply a car's brakes to prevent accidents. And Google's self-driving test cars might someday allow us to leave the driving to machines entirely.

The idea of vehicles communicating with each other takes the connected-car concept a step further, however. By sharing data about the position and velocity of cars on the road -- and perhaps additional details on the people controlling them -- driving could be a lot safer.

"So how do we get there? We can start with something as simple as sharing our position data between cars," said Healey. "Just sharing GPS. If I have a GPS and a camera in my car, I have a pretty precise idea of where I am and how fast I'm going."

Obviously, Intel isn't the only company working on connected-car technologies. Ford, for instance, is developing vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) systems that warn drivers of potentially hazardous traffic events, such as when a car is about to speed through a red light, the company says. Ford's safe car tech also upgrades conventional stoplights and brings them into the connected-car network via a "smart intersection" that monitors traffic signals, GPS data and digital maps. It uses this information to detect potential hazards and transmit warnings to vehicles.

Although few drivers would object to safer roads, data-sharing cars might infringe on something that most of us value greatly: our privacy.

"Fundamentally, these technologies exist today. I think the biggest problem that we face is our own willingness to share our data," said Healey. "I think it's a very disconcerting notion, this idea that our cars will be watching us, talking about us to other cars. That we'll be going down the road in a sea of gossip."

What do you think? Should cars exchange data to make our roads safer?

To understand how to secure big data, you have to understand what it is -- and what it isn't. In the Security Implications Of Big Data Strategies report, we show you how to alter your security strategy to accommodate big data -- and when not to. (Free registration required.)

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