TROY, MI – Auto makers for years have talked about technology that would enable vehicles to speak to one another and the surrounding infrastructure, but to date nothing has emerged.

Industry insiders on hand here for a panel discussion hosted by the Society of Automotive Engineers and the Connected Vehicle Trade Assn., say technology needed to do this is rolling out in cars and smartphones operated by millions of consumers every day.

But that technology – used to deliver traffic warnings, provide turn-by-turn directions and deliver live sports scores – isn’t reliable enough yet for full-scale vehicle-to-vehicle communication, say the panel participants.

“You can’t guarantee the operation of those systems in the car,” Hideki Hada, manager of the integrated vehicle system department at the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, MI, tells Ward’s.

“They may increase the awareness of consumers about the future of connected vehicles, but our focus is more on the safety side,” he says. “And you can’t use cell phones and Wi-Fi for safety. You can claim it, but you can’t be confident.”

Tom Schaffnit, an advanced safety system engineer for American Honda Motor Co. Inc., is blunter in his assessment of the limitations today’s technologies have when it comes to improving safety.

“When you call somebody on the phone (in another vehicle), that’s V2V,” he says. “But if you’re trying to do this for safety and your radar sees somebody you’re about to run into, how do you call them, you don’t know their number. These are things people have to (work) through.”

Typically when pundits speak about V2V, or vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology, they’re referring to a standardized means of communication, either from vehicle to vehicle or vehicle to roadway.

Such technology could enhance driver safety through a number of applications. For example, Mercedes-Benz USA, among others, is testing a system that is tied into the vehicle-navigation unit’s GPS.

When the car is approaching an intersection, it receives a signal on the status of the traffic light. If the driver fails to slow for a red light, audible and visual warnings alert the driver to stop. Failure to do so triggers the car’s automatic emergency braking.

The automatic braking occurs only if the onboard sensor and traffic signal’s dedicated short-range communication system concur the light is red.

V2V and V2I still is very much in the works, the panelists say, but they add the rollout may take longer than necessary given the tough economy and lack of consensus on a method of communication.

While auto makers say onboard systems are ready to go, federal and local governments likely would be responsible for installing the embedded infrastructure technology.

“As far as I understand, there’s a whole need of fresh investment in that area, and it’s not a cheap investment, either,” says Partha Goswami, technology manager for General Motors Co. “We’re struggling with our roads and crumbling bridges, so I’m not sure how much attention that’s getting from the government.”

Honda’s Schaffnit admits the high infrastructure cost may keep federal and local governments from placing a priority on such projects, but argues the potential safety benefits should be weighed against any financial outlays.

“It’s just like when we go to war, or a bridge falls down, you have to determine priorities,” he says. “That’s what (governments are) going to have to do. There’s work being done to establish credible benefits and credible costs and be able to weigh them.”

Japan already has begun real-world testing of V2I technology, with plans to install 1,600 roadside units throughout the country, Hada says.

But even with government participation, the systems’ capabilities are hampered due to the limited number of vehicles equipped to communicate with embedded infrastructure technology.

“I don’t know how many vehicles have that technology,” he says.

None of the panelists can predict accurately when V2V and V2I technologies will be rolled out on a widespread basis, but all agree it will happen eventually.

Schaffnit says such a rollout is just a natural progression of automotive safety technologies.

“In the 1960s, we started with seatbelts, and those helped,” he says. “And then we started to add things like autonomous crash avoidance, and radar systems that put on brakes. These are growing and we expect them to grow more.”

bpope@wardsauto.com