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Connected Cars Get a Test Drive

by david.nunes

Connected Cars Get a Test Drive

See how cars are communicating with their surroundings, to become part of The Internet of Everything.


Cars need fuel or electricity to keep moving, but increasingly it is data that keeps them running right. Information from sensors in all of a car’s critical sub-systems, from fuel injection to brakes, feeds into electronic control units that both monitor and manage these sub-systems. But for the most part, data that is generated in a car stays in a car. That is starting to change as cars become part of the Internet of Everything.

Cars can report diagnostic information to head off potentially expensive repairs and can receive system updates over a wireless data connection, using either an embedded radio or a phone linked to the car’s systems through Bluetooth.  But using short-range wireless technology, cars can also broadcast information about their position, direction, and speed to nearby vehicles. This would allow collision-avoidance systems that are both less costly and more comprehensive than current approaches, which rely heavily on radar.

Cars can send the same information to receivers placed alongside roads, providing for real-time monitoring of traffic flow and volume. Analysis of the data would let traffic engineers discover improvements to the infrastructure, such as traffic light placement and timing and turn restrictions that would reduce congestion. Real-time analytics could allow traffic light timing and even speed limits to be adjusted on the fly.

A key to making this all work is a variant of Wi-Fi known as IEEE 802.11p or Dedicated Short-Range Communications. An Australian company, Cohda Wireless Pty. and a Santa Clara, Cal.-based competitor, Savari, make the wireless modules that go into cars and can communicate both with each other and with roadside transceivers. (Cisco is an investor in Cohda.)

The system is getting its largest scale test in Ann Arbor, Mich., where the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute has equipped nearly 3,000 vehicles with Wi-Fi-based transmitters for vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications.

The Safety Pilot Model Deployment, funded by a $15 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation equips each car, truck, or bus with a global positioning system receiver and DSRC radios to exchange speed and position data with nearby vehicles. The system also includes a computer that integrates the vehicle-to-vehicle information with onboard data, in part to determine how drivers respond to the warnings and other information they receive from the system. The system can generate lane-change and collision avoidance warnings, while roadside sensors can collect data on traffic flow.

The initial challenge with vehicle-to-vehicle communications is that getting the full benefit of the system requires that most cars be equipped with sensors and DSRC radios, since a vehicle not so equipped is invisible to others. Studies show, that vehicle-to-vehicle communication starts to benefit road traffic users at about 10 percent penetration of the vehicle population. Given that cars are staying on the road for an average of about 10 years, that means it will take at least a decade for all road traffic participants to benefit, even if manufacturers starting installing the systems on all new cars tomorrow.

Dave McNamara, a consultant to Cohda on the Ann Arbor pilot, says the Department of Transportation is promoting aftermarket solutions that would allow older cars to participate in the system. In the meantime, the traffic control system as a whole could benefit from the vehicle-to-infrastructure communications even if only a minority of cars and trucks are equipped.

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