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Honda testing high-tech solution to spot obstacles

Paul A. Eisenstein, CNBC Contributor
Saturday, 31 Aug 2013 | 11:00 AM ET
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While the number of fatalities resulting from vehicle collisions has fallen sharply in the past 10 years, deaths in accidents involving pedestrians and motorcycle riders have remained stubbornly high.

Honda is experimenting with a wireless technology that could significantly reduce those numbers.

Unlike camera-, radar- and laser-based systems, the dedicated short-range communications system that the Japanese company demonstrated this week can track pedestrians and motorcycles even when they're out of the line of sight—for example, on the other side of a parked car or around a corner.

The new technologies are part of an array of intelligent transportation systems that "we believe will be the next step toward a crash-free car," said Jim Keller, Honda's chief engineer of automotive technology research.

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In a demonstration on the roof of Detroit's sprawling MGM Grand Casino, Honda showed off the two prototype systems by having a motorcycle scoot across an "intersection' initially hidden from view behind a truck. The driver of a Honda Accord was alerted to the danger by a sound and a flashing light on a video display mounted on the dashboard. A similar test revealed a pedestrian stepping out into "traffic" from behind a van.

(Read more: Honda Odyssey sets new standard for minivan safety)

Without the added warning, the Accord driver might have hit both the pedestrian and the motorcyclist. Instead, he had enough time to bring the sedan safely to a stop.

Other automakers also are looking for ways to reduce the number of accidents and in particular to spot pedestrians stepping into traffic. Volvo's City Safety technology has won kudos, as well as discounts from insurers that find it effective at reducing car-to-car and car-to-pedestrian collisions.

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But systems based on cameras or radar, sonar or laser sensors usually can't do much behind the line of sight, and generally offer a warning of no more than about three seconds. Honda's vehicle-to-pedestrian and vehicle-to-motorcycle technologies can boost that to as much as 10 seconds and spot potential collisions.

The trick is a wireless communications system similar to Wi-Fi. If it proves effective—and if Honda, its competitors and regulators can agree on standards—a small chip would be embedded in future cellphones and motorcycles. In a phone, a low-power signal would indicate if a pedestrian is about to walk into the street; in a motorcycle, it would indicate the bike's path.

A wireless receiver in a car would continually watch for potential collisions. Such technology could be linked to the vehicle's brakes and allow the car to come to a stop, if necessary before the driver even recognized the danger.

Surprising new crash test results
A new crash test from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has some car makers up in arms. The Honda Civic did well, while others didn't.

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Federal regulators are studying the idea of requiring vehicle-to-vehicle technology in future passenger cars. It could alert a driver entering a sharp curve to problems, such as an oncoming vehicle making a left turn.

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Honda is one of a growing number of manufacturers with a stretch goal of eliminating traffic fatalities using high-tech systems and improved vehicle crash structures.

On Tuesday, Nissan restated that target as it announced plans to launch its first fully autonomous, or hands-off, vehicle by 2020. The company said it hopes to offer that technology in all its products within the next 10 years.

By CNBC Contributor Paul A. Eisenstein. Follow him on Twitter @DetroitBureau or at thedetroitbureau.com.

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