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Intelligent Machines

Chinese Carmaker Is Testing Car-to-Car Communications

China’s leading carmaker is testing technology that would let vehicles communicate wirelessly with each other and with traffic signals.

Vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure technology could reduce accidents and ease congestion.

One of China’s leading carmakers is testing technology that promises to prevent accidents and ease congestion by allowing vehicles as well as traffic signals to communicate wirelessly. Although no standard for the technology has emerged in China yet, representatives at the company say it could introduce some form of car-to-car communications in 2018, ahead of many U.S. automakers.

Changan, a state owned car manufacturer based in Chongquing, in central China, is testing so-called vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology at its U.S. R&D center in Plymouth, Michigan. The company does not sell vehicles in the U.S. and says it has no plans to enter the U.S. market. But the fact that it is testing car-to-car technology at its U.S. facility suggests that it sees a future for it in its home country.

Car-to-car technology is promoted in the U.S. and Europe as a cheap and effective way to help vehicles avoid crashes and to control traffic flow more effectively. Equipped vehicles broadcast useful information, including their location, speed, and direction of travel, and computers onboard each car use that information to identify an impending collision, and issue a warning (see “10 Breakthrough Technologies: Car-to-Car Communications”). Some companies are also developing custom communications systems to allow commercial vehicles to travel in highly efficient high-sped convoys (see “Trucks Convoy under Computer Control”).

Following a successful trial of the technology involving several thousand cars around Ann Arbor, Michigan, the U.S. Department of Transportation is widely expected to issue specifications for the technology later this year. The technology will debut in a high-end Cadillac in 2017, and it may eventually be mandated for new cars in the U.S. (see “The Internet of Cars is Approaching a Crossroads”). The picture is less clear in China, where the government is researching vehicle-to-vehicle technology but has not yet given any indication of when it might be implemented.

I got to ride around Ann Arbor in one of Changan’s cars, a small SUV called the CS35, fitted with vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure technology. The SUV was equipped with a wireless transmitter and receiver connected to an Android tablet attached to the dashboard. A warning flashed when another car equipped with the technology approached along a blind intersection. Another warning came as the car traveled around a sharp curve too quickly (thanks to signals received from a roadside beacon).

One challenge with car-to-car technology is that it will take a while for it to become ubiquitous. Although the Chinese car market is now the largest auto market in the world, per capita car ownership is still far lower in China than in the U.S., Europe, or Japan. China also lags far behind the U.S., Europe, and Japan in terms of technology development.

John Helveston, a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University who is studying the adoption of electric vehicles in China, says that foreign carmakers—which dominate the market in China—prefer to sell older technology there. And even if domestic carmakers are interested in car-to-car systems, “it wouldn’t be that interesting if only five out of every 100 cars can communicate with each other,” he says.

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