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Toyota testing smart cars that talk to each other and to the road

Connected technology in cars may be on the road nationwide in less than 10 years. Toyota is using Microsoft's Azure cloud for its connected platform.

At the Intelligent Transport System test site, a Japanese facility that is the size of three football fields, Toyota is testing smart cars that talk to each other and to the roads on the 700 MHz band "with the aim of reducing traffic accidents." According to Toyota, "The site is equipped with a road-to-vehicle communications system consisting of a vehicle detection system, a pedestrian detection system, a course monitoring system, traffic signals and control devices."

Below is Toyota's Intelligent Transport System, an 8.65-acre test site, or 'Proving Ground,' featuring 700 MHz band road-to-vehicle communications.

Furthermore, Toyota announced two newly developed safety systems: an Intelligent Clearance Sonar and Drive-start Control, aimed at eliminating traffic casualties. A new "Pre-collision System" by Toyota includes collision avoidance assistance that is "effective in high-speed collisions" and "more than 90% of speed ranges in rear-end collisions."

In the image above, Toyota showed off its road-to-vehicle communications inside smart cars. The Associated Press reported:

The cars at the Intelligent Transport System site receive information from sensors and transmitters installed on the streets to minimize the risk of accidents in situations such as missing a red traffic light, cars advancing from blind spots and pedestrians crossing the street. The system also tests cars that transmit such information to each other. In a test drive for reporters Monday, the presence of a pedestrian triggered a beeping sound in the car and a picture of a person popped up on a screen in front of the driver. A picture of an arrow popped up to indicate an approaching car at an intersection. An electronic female voice said, "It's a red light," if the driver was about to ignore a red light.

Toyota plans to test this smart-car technology on some Japanese roads starting in 2014, but did not say when the tests would start in America. Yet cars are already talking to each other in the USA, specifically in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where a $25 million, year-long vehicle safety program is in progress. About 2,800 vehicles equipped with wireless devices are sending signals to each other, "warning their drivers of potential dangers such as stopped traffic or cars that might be blowing through a red light. They can even get traffic lights to turn green if no cars are coming the other way."

Peter Sweatman, director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, said, "Technology is available so that connected cars could be on the road nationwide in under 10 years." Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai/Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen/Audi all have supplied vehicles for the U.S. Department of Transportation's Connected Vehicle Safety Pilot.

Back in April 2011, Microsoft and Toyota announced a $12 million joint-venture to deploy next-generation telematics services using the Windows Azure cloud platform. CNNMoney reported, "The system that Toyota and Microsoft plan to deploy will be unique in at least one respect: For electric and plug-in hybrid electric cars, the partnership's telematics will provide energy management services, in which plug-in cars 'talk' to one another. The cars will also be able to communicate with the electric grid and arrange to charge themselves in the most environmentally friendly and cost-efficient manner."

The Toyota and Microsoft collaboration grew tighter when Toyota chose Microsoft "to deploy Office 365, Exchange, SharePoint, Lync and Windows Server to its 200,000 employees worldwide," selecting Microsoft as "its new global communications infrastructure."

Zack Hicks, Toyota's top technology executive in North America, recently talked to Julie Bort at Business Insider. Among other revelations, Hicks said that Toyota chose Azure for "security" and global scalability.

Microsoft's Azure cloud is what we're leveraging to communicate to our vehicles. The car is essentially a connected device. So today, in some of our Lexus vehicles you can customize your startup screen on your dashboard. You can check in with Facebook when you go to a different location. You can buy tickets for a movie or make a restaurant reservation right from your navigation screen. We've got a hybrid vehicle where we're working on a game. You see how many miles you drove to earn eco-points. The more eco-points you get, the more trees and flowers grow on your app.

To see what Hicks described as "the next big 'connected platform'," we might not need to look any further than Toyota's "Let's go places" and "Entune."

Although reducing traffic accidents and fatalities would be a great thing, I'm not sure how talking on a phone while driving, or worse texting, can be illegal in some states, but you will be able to update your Facebook status while you drive. Maybe the reason for "smart cars" is so a vehicle can drive itself and prevent collisions, while the driver stays busy on social networking sites? At this point, I have no idea how you would protect your privacy or stop sites from creating data-mining profiles and tracking you in your vehicle. Last year, the Nissan Leaf was caught secretly leaking driver location and speed to websites.

One final odd but cool side note regarding Toyota occurred during the Hurricane Sandy blackout. NBC News reported that one man in New Jersey, Bob Sakala, used his Toyota Prius Hybrid to power "his home -- including lights, laptops and a television -- on three quarters of a tank of gas." Sakala said, "The neighbors kept saying, 'Does Bob have a generator?' No, it's the Prius. It's a spaceship."

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