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Cars Get Connected

By Jamie J. Gooch

GoochYour car may soon be talking behind your back … to the car about to rear-end you. Last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT’s) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced its intention to mandate that future vehicles be able to communicate with one another. Similarly, European standards organizations have agreed on specifications for the Cooperative Intelligence Transport Systems that will form the basis of connected car technology in Europe.

“Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology represents the next generation of auto safety improvements, building on the life-saving achievements we’ve already seen with safety belts and air bags,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx when announcing the program. “By helping drivers avoid crashes, this technology will play a key role in improving the way people get where they need to go, while ensuring that the U.S. remains the leader in the global automotive industry.”

The idea is that your car would use a customized Wi-Fi protocol, 802.11p, to warn you of an imminent collision in time for you to avoid it. Need to know if you have time to pass that garbage truck on a two-lane road? Whether that sports car speeding toward the intersection is going to stop before he hits you? If someone is about to turn left in front of you? The DOT says V2V communications can make you aware of such situations while the other vehicle is still hundreds of yards away, even if they cannot be seen.

The connected vehicles would not just communicate with vehicles next to each other, they would connect with vehicles miles away as well as with traffic systems in a huge mesh.

Tests Positive

In August 2012, DOT launched a test program called the Safety Pilot model deployment in Ann Arbor, MI. More than 2,800 vehicles from different manufacturers were deployed in the largest road test of V2V technology to date. Both factory-embedded types of devices and aftermarket safety systems that were brought into the vehicle were tested.

The tests were so successful that NHTSA estimates 80% of crashes involving non-impaired drivers could be addressed by V2V technology. It expects a fourth of all vehicles will be connected by 2020. Likewise, the European Commission expects the technology to begin implementation in 2015.

Just the Beginning

The possibilities for vehicle-to-vehicle communications and its companion technology, vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I), are easy to imagine. Privacy watchdogs are already envisioning a day when your car could be stopped remotely, when its every move could be tracked and controlled. It begs the question: Who is really driving your car?

The government is well aware of the public’s unease. Its official press release states:

“The More Information sent between vehicles does not identify those vehicles, but merely contains basic safety data. In fact, the system as contemplated contains several layers of security and privacy protection to ensure that vehicles can rely on messages sent from other vehicles, and that a vehicle or group of vehicles would be identifiable through defined procedures only if there is a need to fix a safety problem.”

Somehow, I don’t think that will be enough to allay everyone’s concerns. Still, privacy issues have not been enough to stop other connecting technologies — from Facebook to the Cloud — and I don’t think it will be a roadblock (sorry) to connected vehicles. There are just too many potential benefits.

For example, pair V2V tech with strides made by Google and others in self-driving cars, and it doesn’t take a fortune teller to see the writing on the wall. Combining sensors that allow cars to “see” what’s around them with the Wi-Fi that enables them to “speak” to one another sounds like science fiction, but the technology is here. Could cars flow like email messages sent from point A to point B down a true More Information superhighway with little to no user intervention? Why not?

Well, for one reason, an email — 42-year-old technology — I sent the other day never reached its destination. It will be quite sometime before I would be comfortable leaving the driving to technology, and I’m an early technology adopter. For connected cars to reach their full potential will require years of public awareness building, foolproof implementations and layers upon layers of safeguards.

But it’s not an all-or-nothing situation. V2V communication is just the beginning of a long journey, and design engineers are behind the wheel.

Jamie Gooch is the managing editor of Desktop Engineering. Contact him at de-editors@deskeng.com.

About Jamie J. Gooch

Jamie Gooch is the managing editor of Desktop Engineering. Contact him at de-editors@deskeng.com.