Why aren't cars yet capable of communicating with each other?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Apr 01, 2001

Dear Tom and Ray:

Why is it that we have made enormous strides in electronic communication over the decades, but the communication between vehicles on the road has been practically unchanged since the invention of the car (a horn and a few blinking lights)? Isn't it time we had better communication between moving vehicles? We could have bumper-level or rooftop screens with signs that say "Stop tailgating!" or "I am turning right, but not right this second!" I think I'm giving some inventor a chance to be a trazillionaire. What do you think? -- Lynn

TOM: I don't know, Lynn. In simplicity, there is beauty.

RAY: That's what my brother keeps telling himself, anyway.

TOM: I'm reluctant to give people more things to do while they're driving. And when you think about it, we already have most of the basics covered.

RAY: For instance, when somebody is riding your bumper, tapping your brake lights and slowing down pretty much says "Stop tailgating!"

TOM: And then, after the guy passes you, driving up behind him and shining your bright lights into his rearview mirror pretty much says "... and the horse you rode in on."

RAY: You're right that there are a few signals missing. All of our existing signals are negative messages: brake lights say "Stop!," turn signals say "Look out, I'm turning," and the horn says "Get out of my way" or "Don't do that." But there's no way to send positive messages, like "Thank you" or "Sorry, my fault."

TOM: If you can make eye contact with the other driver, a friendly wave can say "Thank you," and a raised, open palm, with your head slightly bowed, can say "I'm sorry." But those require visual driver-to-driver contact, and that's not always possible.

RAY: But I don't think that having a guy type a message or fumble through a list of optional messages as he's trying to change lanes is necessarily a good idea. Nor is it a good idea to have other drivers reading and reacting to such messages when they should be watching the road. And we're not even addressing the issue of what kinds of messages certain people would opt to broadcast.

TOM: So it's a good idea, Lynn. But I think safety demands that we stick with the most basic, most crucial communication elements for now -- the brake lights, the turn signals and the horn. But if someone had an idea for a simple signal for "Thank you" or 'm sorry," I think that would lead to more civility and more opportunities to de-escalate angry situations on the road. Anybody got any ideas?

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