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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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Technical Toolbox


Equipping Autos to “Talk” to Each Other Yields Significant Safety Innovations

By Karl Vilacoba

About Technical Toolbox

  • Technical Toolbox highlights innovations and emerging technologies making an impact in the transportation sector.

Ford Motor Company

Ford experiments with a collision avoidance

technology with an inflatable "car" at a test site

in Michigan.

Two cars head toward a four-way intersection at 40 mph. One is driven north by a fatigued motorist who doesn’t notice the light, now yellow, a block away.

The second is driven east by an alert motorist obeying all the rules of the road. By the time he reaches the intersection, he’ll have a green light. Then he’ll be broadsided.

Or will he? Maybe at the nick of time, an alarm goes off on his dashboard warning him of the danger. Maybe the traffic light, sensing trouble is imminent, stays yellow for a few seconds more to allow the tired driver to pass. Or maybe both cars, without their masters’ commands, suddenly slam the brakes on their own.

When cars “talk” to each other, their conversations can save lives.

Connected vehicle technologies—sometimes referred to as IntelliDrive or vehicle infrastructure integration technologies, among other terms—enable autos to communicate with each other and their surroundings. Some experts believe the emerging technology’s impact on safety, mobility and the environment will transform the driving experience in the years to come.

“Vehicle connectivity and the electrification of vehicles are two areas critical to the future of the automotive industry, each representing a paradigm shift for the car of the future and the industry as a whole,” said Udi Naamani, director and general manager of the Connected Vehicle Proving Center at the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s College of Engineering and Science.

Using wireless signals, connected vehicles can communicate valuable information, like their position, speed and brake status, to other cars and roadside infrastructure. These messages can be transmitted several times per second without the driver’s knowledge. Among the many capabilities envisioned for connected vehicles in the future:

• When a car brakes suddenly, it could notify all of the vehicles behind it to slow down or stop, and even command the vehicles to brake if a crash is imminent.

• Data indicating cars’ speeds and locations could be aggregated to produce real-time reports on traffic tieups and preferable alternate routes. Proponents say this would help reduce congestion and emissions.

• An approaching car could warn people crossing the street by sending an alert to their cell phones or devices mounted on a bike.

• If a crash takes place, the vehicle could automatically contact emergency responders and report its location, the speed during the crash, the damage the car suffered and other pertinent information.

• The technology could help lower crash rates in a number of common hazard situations, like blind spot lane changes, turns at intersections where the line of sight is obstructed, approaching unexpected curves in the road too fast, or backing out of a parking spot at a busy mall.

“By giving a driver that extra halfsecond or three-quarters of a second to react, it can make all the difference in the world,” said Mike Schagrin, project lead for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s IntelliDrive initiative.

A Common Language

Once focused on hardware like seatbelts and airbags, automakers have increasingly turned toward “active safety” elements, which employ the latest technologies to prevent crashes. Several of these features have entailed the use of radar to give drivers a better sense of their surroundings.

In one popular application, the radar can tell a driver who is parallel parking how much room is left between their bumper and a parked car.

Philip Thornton, Volpe Center, USDOT

A connected vehicle could signal others behind it if a car ahead

unexpectedly slammed the brakes, potentially preventing

a pileup.

But while a radar program can sense objects in its vicinity, those objects can’t tell the car anything back. Also, radar can only detect objects in its path; connected vehicle technologies can inform a car what’s going on miles away.

This “next big thing” in the industry requires cars to talk to each other in a common language. Developing this communications standard has brought about a great deal of teamwork from traditional business rivals.

“When you get into wireless communication, you need a standard that everybody is going to follow,” said Mike Shulman, technical leader at Ford Motor Company’s Active Safety Research and Advanced Engineering division. “So if a Ford car wants to talk to a GM car, or a Honda or Toyota car, everybody understands that this is the message we’re going to exchange, and this is how often we’re going to send it, and this is the information that has to be in each message.”

Cooperation has also been evident at an international level. In July, Shulman hosted a meeting between government representatives from the U.S. and Europe to discuss their progress implementing the technologies, as well as the benefits of working together.

“If Ford wants to build global products, we don’t really want to engineer different products for Europe and then North America, and none of the other car companies do either,” Shulman said. “So if we can agree on the same message set, that makes everybody’s life easier.”

An Opportunity for Detroit

At a time when news could hardly be gloomier for Detroit, this emerging industry has been a source for optimism. Experts say U.S. automakers have the opportunity to pioneer the field and create new jobs for the Motor City in the process.

Ford Motor Company

A smart intersection being piloted in Michigan. Equipment

in the box on the utility pole can communicate with


A 2008 study prepared by the nonprofit Center for Automotive Research (CAR) for the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) estimates the state could gain 16,000 full-time jobs and $177 million in annual income tax revenues by establishing itself as the home of the vehicle communications technology industry. This would require Michigan becoming the first state to develop a connected vehicle system, complete with roadside infrastructure, connected public transportation vehicles, Internet services, call centers and other improvements.

“This is an opportunity to build an industry that uses Michigan expertise in all things automotive and [research and development]—an industry in which our state can lead the nation,” said Richard Wallace, senior project manager at the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based CAR.

The Connected Vehicle Proving Center was founded with state funding in 2006 as a testing ground for public and private sector research.

So how is the U.S. doing so far? “We’re the furthest ahead in research, although not necessarily in implementation,” said IntelliDrive’s Schagrin, adding that some countries, like Japan, have been less conservative in debuting the technologies.

The IntelliDrive initiative, sponsored by the USDOT’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA), focuses not only on the technologies, but the policies, planning and infrastructure investments that will be necessary to help connected vehicles function at their full potential. The program has brought together states, private sector and nonprofit researchers, transportation agencies, automakers and other stakeholders to develop a coherent vision for the future of vehicle connectivity.


Experts say there are many serious questions—technical, financial and even ethical—to be answered before the vision of a connected road network can be realized.

First, there’s the significant question of who will pay for it. The CAR study estimated the cost of deploying, operating and maintaining the infrastructure system to support connected vehicles in Michigan alone at $370 million annually. However, it contended that when you take into account the costly problems it will reduce—such as congestion, pollution, property damage, human injuries and deaths—the investment would quickly pay for itself. Some have suggested the capital costs should be split between the public and the industries that will benefit from the investment.

There are also concerns about privacy. The public must be assured that the messages their cars are transmitting are stripped of any personal information that could be used in ways that make them uneasy.

Finally, and most significantly, in order for the technology to function properly, a high percentage of the U.S. auto fleet must be connected. If the public were to get rid of their old cars and buy new connected ones at the natural rate of turnover, it could take decades before progress is made, Schagrin said. To speed things up, experts say it may be necessary to retrofit older cars and offer incentives for people to try the technology early on.

And if there’s not a rapid and widespread buy-in from the public, the CAR study warns, the era of the connected car could be over before it begins.

“If only a handful of ‘innovators’ adopt the system and only a few (if any) vehicles communicate with each other and the road, will they still receive satisfactory service? If not, the system is likely to crumble,” the study concludes. “If innovators cannot use the system to its fullest, other consumers may never decide to join the market.”

Karl Vilacoba is the managing editor of InTransition.

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