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The Internet of Cars Is Approaching a Crossroads

Wireless vehicle networks could make driving safer and more efficient, but the cost of deployment will be significant.
June 27, 2013

The phrase “vehicle-to-vehicle communications” might currently mean little more than a few choice words hurled through an open car window. In a few years, however, it could be synonymous with technology that makes driving safer, less polluting, and certainly less antagonistic.

Dash warning: Vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems will be able to warn drivers in emergencies.

This week, officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C., will see the technology in action, in a demonstration organized by experts from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute and various communications equipment and car manufacturers. The demos will showcase a way for vehicles to exchange information—including their position, direction, and speed—with other similarly equipped vehicles as well as with roadside equipment such as traffic lights and tollbooths. The result is a peer-to-peer communication network capable of alerting drivers and onboard computers about what’s happening on the road—and what may be about to happen next.

The technology, which could have significant safety benefits, is at something of a crossroads. Toward the end of the year, the Department of Transportation will decide whether to mandate that future cars include some sort of vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology or leave it to the market.

The largest ever real-world vehicle-to-vehicle experiment—involving 2,800 vehicles, many belonging to ordinary drivers who have volunteered to take part—has been under way in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for the past 10 months. Each vehicle in the project, including 60 trucks, 85 transit buses, and some motorcycles and bicycles, is fitted with a transmitter and receiver capable of sending and receiving signals over a distance of 300 meters. The equipment uses a specialized version of Wi-Fi, called 802.11p, which operates in a dedicated radio frequency in the 5.9-gigahertz range and was designed specifically for communications from moving vehicles.

Trunk transmitter: In an ongoing experiment in Ann Arbor, Michigan, thousands of cars have been fitted with transmitters like the one shown here.

Most of the cars and trucks in the Ann Arbor project are simply broadcasting data; the main purpose of the exercise is to record data to determine how effectively information is relayed between vehicles. But some participating drivers also receive dashboard alerts, offering a glimpse of how the technology may eventually work. These participants are shown a warning if, for example, another driver several cars ahead (and out of view) applies the brakes suddenly, or if their onboard computer notices another car approaching an intersection ahead at a speed that could cause a collision.

The findings of the study will be released in August, but John Maddox, director of collaborative program strategies at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, says the effect could be comparable to that of networking together personal computers over the Internet. “The connection itself is low-tech,” he says, “but the intelligence and the value that it brings are extremely powerful and should not be underestimated.”

Deploying vehicle-to-vehicle technology could certainly have a dramatic impact on accident statistics; an analysis by the Department of Transportation suggests that 80 percent of road accidents involving “non-impaired drivers” could be affected by the technology. The Ann Arbor study could well add weight to that argument with real-world evidence.

“We all understand that this could save a lot of lives,” says Sven Beiker, executive director of Stanford University’s Center for Automotive Research. “If cars could talk to one another, it would help to avoid collisions.”

Talking light: This transmitter is attached to a set of traffic lights.

The technology could also help address traffic congestion, which would have the effect of reducing vehicle emissions. And it could connect with the automated driving technologies being developed by most major automakers and popularized by Google’s “self-driving” Priuses—in fact, it would offer a much cheaper way for semiautonomous vehicles to sense their surrounding than the expensive laser ranging equipment that sits on top of Google’s cars. “Connected technology and automated technology are very complimentary,” says Maddox. “They’re on something of a parallel path, which, I think, will converge.”

But it’s far from certain that the government will back the technology. Stanford’s Beiker says the biggest issue is where future funding would come from: carmakers would pay for onboard equipment and pass that cost on to car buyers, but the government would need to pay for the technology to be added to roadside equipment and for the means of regulating and managing the overall system. One complicating factor is that increasingly fast cellular networks could be seen as a cheaper, simpler way to introduce some of the same technology. The Ann Arbor project is expected to cost a total of $25 million, with 80 percent of the funding coming from the Department of Transportation.

The United States could well be overtaken by Europe in developing the technology. Similar standards are being developed there through a project called Car2Car, which is backed by carmakers who have already committed to introducing some form of vehicle-to-vehicle communication by 2018.

Whether driven by government mandates or by industry initiatives, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication is expected to become commonplace within the next decade or so. A study published in March of this year by ABI Research concluded that a little over 60 percent of new cars would feature the technology by 2027.

Whatever the reaction to the Ann Arbor study in Washington, it seems likely that drivers will be interested in seeing the technology added to cars. Maddox says the response from participants has been overwhelming: “We haven’t done a final survey, but people are very positive on the technology. Some people don’t want us to take it off their vehicle ever.”

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