Your next car is going to be a lot smarter

By: Alan M. Field

Vehicle-to-vehicle communication is going to change how we drive.

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The Grand Rapids Fire Department had a big problem. At one time, most drivers got out of the way for speeding fire engines. But many new cars have improved soundproofing and eye-catching electronics that make it a lot easier for the person behind the wheel to get distracted. Grand Rapids drivers were causing more accidents, not just with other cars, but also fire engines.

What could a fire department do to address distracted driving – a treacherous situation happening on roads across the country?

The Grand Rapids Fire Department began a pilot program, testing devices developed by the Chicago startup HAAS Alert that track fire trucks’ locations and transmit visual and audio alerts to other vehicles in real time. Drivers receive warnings via navigation apps or in-vehicle infotainment units. The HAAS system currently works with the Waze app as well as Ford and Land Rover vehicles. According to a University of Minnesota simulation study, collisions may reduce the chances of a collision by 60 to 90 percent for any vehicle using advanced warning systems like the HAAS Alert device.

“We live in an ever more distracted world,” notes James Goepel, a professor of cybersecurity at Drexel University. “It used to be that car radios were the thing that everybody was afraid of. At first, there were efforts to ban radios from cars, and other things that were distracting driving.” Today, he added, we have the same issues with cell phones and automotive electronics devices such as on-board cameras, GPS and vehicle sensors such as blind-spot warnings.

The Grand Rapids Fire Department program demonstrates just one way vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications could impact how we drive. Over the next decade – no one knows exactly how soon – most vehicles in the U.S. should be able to wirelessly exchange information about their speed, location, and direction with other vehicles and traffic control systems. The vehicles are expected to be broadcasting and receiving omni-directional messages (up to 10 times per second), while creating a 360 degree “awareness” of other vehicles in their proximity.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and its operating administrations have already engaged in numerous research and pilot programs related to vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technology, which includes vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V), vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) and vehicle-to-pedestrian (V2P) communication. One USDOT report estimated that a fully developed V2V system “could potentially address 80 percent of all vehicle crashes, translating into a considerable reduction of vehicle-related injuries and deaths.”

Across the United States, fire departments, ambulance services and municipal police are testing the benefits of V2V devices that track and protect trucks carrying utility workers, delivery trucks, tow trucks and other emergency responders whose treacherous work requires them to obstruct roads.      

The coming V2X warning systems will mean that “cars can alert each other that ‘Hey, I’m slowing down’ or traffic control systems can tell drivers, ‘Hey, that light is changing,” explains Goepel “You need to pay attention; you need to stop because you are driving too fast.’”

These things take some of the burden off the driver, he adds, and “accept that they’re going to be a little distracted” by providing them with means to mitigate some of those risks.

In Florida, the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority has been addressing safety hazards in a crosswalk notorious for its high number of vehicle-pedestrian collisions and near-misses. Near a downtown courthouse, the organization installed a pedestrian-detection system that warns drivers about the presence of pedestrians. The solution combines LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) equipment – which identifies pedestrians in the crosswalk – along with roadside equipment that broadcasts the data to connected vehicles in the vicinity, as well as alerts to their drivers.

Despite the enormous potential of V2X, there are clear challenges ahead, admits Goepel.

“Some drivers may not want to do what the technology tells them to do,” he explains. To account for such attitudes, tomorrow’s V2X-connected vehicles may not allow you to make unsafe driving choices. The gradual acceptance of transitional devices, such as today’s blind-spot warnings that buzz or flash, may help pave the way.

V2X will likely go beyond the noises and buzzes that are in today’s advanced cars, says Goepel. In the future, they might be preventing the driver from turning onto a dangerous lane.

“It is not hard to imagine that if the car detected that you were about to do something that could harm you, it could take control of the wheel by not letting you change lanes,” he says.

While drivers get used to the initial taste of the technology, many V2X developers are already thinking long-term. That’s the best way to take advantage of the technology’s full potential.

For more information, see:

Tampa-Hillsborough crosswalk safety

Fathom Cypher

HAAS Alert

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About the author:

Alan M. Field is a former foreign correspondent for Newsweek and Japan bureau chief for Business Week. He’s also a senior editor for Wharton’s Journal of Commerce.

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