As a Ford Explorer sped toward an intersection, a small car approaching from the right was about to blow through an imagined red light and smash into the SUV.
But while the drivers weren't communicating, their cars were: a sudden alarm to hit the brakes saved the Explorer and its passengers from getting T-boned on the closed course.
This was just one example on display recently of "intelligent vehicle" technology being developed by automakers and suppliers around the world to warn drivers of impending accidents before they happen -- and in theory, prevent them.
Companies and top researchers gathered at a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conference to show off their latest wares for radar detection and wireless devices. Test vehicles equipped with Ford's system of car-to-car communication were on hand, for example, as were similar efforts by other companies.
Some offerings went beyond just warning drivers to assisting them in taking evasive action as well -- though most stopped short of fully automated responses. German-based supplier Continental, for example, displayed a car equipped with sensors that triggered a special steering system that activated when a collision was imminent, giving drivers who wouldn't have the strength to pull the wheel hard enough the extra help to avoid the problem.
NHTSA itself is gearing up for a comprehensive yearlong pilot program set to start in 2012, in which hundreds of cars equipped with vehicle-to-vehicle communication devices will be tested in an American community. The goal is to study whether the technology can really perform as promised in a real-world setting. Several cities are in the running to be chosen, including Ann Arbor, Mich.
The results of the pilot program could result in NHTSA potentially deciding to mandate some method of vehicle-to-vehicle communication for U.S. vehicles. The auto safety agency has already put rules in place to require electronic stability control on most 2012 model-year cars and light trucks, and NHTSA officials have expressed their desire to explore more active safety methods.
Many in the auto industry are already doing preliminary testing of their own across the country. Ford is deploying about 65 prototype vehicles this summer for testing at various locations in the U.S. to examine how weather and altitude differences affect its systems.
But while cars may talk to each other in the near future and send warnings, that doesn't mean they will take action. Alfred Eckert, director of advanced engineering at Continental, said wireless connections alone will likely not be enough to rely on for automatic intervention.
"You would need to have another method I think, a radar, a sensor, to have a threat validated first to be absolutely sure it's really there," Eckert said. "Until that is perfected, you can't have vehicles taking control."