It will save more lives than seat belts, more than air bags and more than electronic stability control. Antilock brakes won’t hold a candle to it. For sheer lifesaving capacity, nothing in the history of the auto industry will come close to it.
It’s called the “intelligent highway” and, at first glance, it’s hard to imagine a wireless communication protocol could so profoundly change automotive transportation. But industry experts say it can and it will.
“We’ve never seen anything quite like this,” says David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research (CAR). “It’s going to have a mega-impact on highway transportation.”
The reason for the superlatives surrounding the technology is simple: It’s more than a lifesaver. It’s a preventative. With the vehicle infrastructure integration (VII), as it’s known, cars will talk to one another. They’ll talk to traffic lights and stop signs. Moreover, local intersections will communicate with municipalities, government agencies, car dealerships and traffic control centers.
As a result, cars won’t collide. They’ll “know” when to slow down, when to turn and when it’s safe to enter an intersection.
“Vehicles will be like cell phones,” says Kieran O’Sullivan, executive vice president of Continental Automotive Systems’ Connectivity Business Unit. “They’ll become a node on a much broader network.”
Indeed, the air around every intersection will be saturated with short-range radio missives that will report the location and condition of, well … everything. Cars and trucks will know where they are. They’ll know who’s around them. They’ll know if they should stay in their lanes or slow down. They’ll know if the street is slippery, if there’s congestion a few miles ahead, if a driver’s about to blow a stop light or if the road is under construction.
The upshot of all that communication is a more intelligent car. In the beginning, these intelligent vehicles will send warnings to drivers. A few years later, they’ll make decisions, overriding drivers when necessary and commandeering the brakes or the steering wheel.
Experts say the result will be fewer accidents and a dramatic drop in highway fatalities. Conservative estimates say the nation’s 42,000 road fatalities will drop by approximately 60 percent. Optimists place that figure closer to 90 percent.
“No other safety technology is even close to this in terms of lifesaving potential and accident prevention,” Cole says. “This is a game-changer.”
Indeed, the intelligent highway changes the game because it takes the focus off crashes and energy management, placing it instead on accident prevention.
“An air bag deploys because you’ve already hit another car,” says Justin McNew, director of mobility solutions for TechnoCom Corp., a wireless technology company that’s building transceivers for cars and highways. “A seat belt is used because you’ve already hit another car. But with this technology, we’re talking about preventing the accident altogether.”
The impact could be profound. The U.S. Dept. of Transportation estimates that accidents and congestion result in about $230 billion of annual losses in the U.S., mostly in wasted fuel, emergency response costs, insurance claims and medical bills. Doing away with accidents would take a huge bite out of those losses, experts say.
The foundation for those accident-prevention capabilities lies in the use of a dedicated short-range communication system (DSRC), which consists mostly of transceiver boards for vehicles, traffic lights and stop signs. DSRC boards are a leading candidate for the smart highway role because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has already allocated 5.9 GHz as the frequency band for the project.
Because of its location in the frequency spectrum, 5.9 GHz is seen as the low-latency solution that’s need for safety-critical applications. “The secret sauce of DSRC is its ability to immediately establish communications so corrective action can be taken,” McNew says.
Several companies, including electronics manufacturers and tier-one suppliers, have already started to build DSRC hardware. TechnoCom’s Multiband Configurable Networking Unit (MCNU), for example, is already being installed at intersections in California, Michigan and New York. The MCNU enclosures, which would be piggy-backed on traffic signal controllers, include separate circuit boards for DSRC and WiFi interfaces, along with GPS and power supplies. A main circuit board equipped with a 1.5-GHz Intel Via processor serves as the central brain and all of the boards are housed in an 8-lb enclosure measuring 12 x 6 x 5 inches.
Vehicles, meanwhile, will use smaller versions of those boxes. The vehicle-mounted boxes are more compact, engineers say, because they needn’t incorporate onboard GPS, which is already integrated into many vehicles. As such, the so-called embedded WAVE (Wireless Access in Vehicular Environment) modules need only be slightly thicker than a credit card.
The technology is expected to help vehicle occupants by providing them with lifesaving information they might not otherwise get. When an oncoming vehicle is about to run a traffic light, for example, vehicle transceivers could autonomously recognize it by accessing traffic signal phase and timing information. “Knowing” that an approaching car would be unable to stop in time, vehicles could communicate with the roadside box, which could broadcast a message to all the other drivers at the intersection.
How automakers would use this information is another matter. Some suppliers are already building systems that warn drivers of impending accidents. Continental Automotive, for example, developed E-horn, an internal warning signal that sounds an alarm accompanied by a blue light that appears on a dashboard display. Similarly, Continental’s E-flare uses optical and acoustic warnings, as well as force-feedback devices for gas pedals, which warn drivers of road hazards.
These systems may only be the tip of the iceberg, however. Automakers say their ultimate plan is to tie the information to brakes and steering units.
“By itself, the information doesn’t save lives,” says Nady Boules, director of electrical and controls integration at General Motors’ Research Lab. “But it enables a multitude of features. You can chip away at the fatalities by adding more and more features.”
Making it all happen, however, won’t be easy. Roadside boxes today cost in the thousands of dollars and vehicle transceivers are believed to cost between $50 and $100 per car. That could create a world of hurt for automakers, who are typically concerned about pennies in their eternal effort to keep their heads above water.
“Understanding what the transceiver might cost, it begins to look like a pretty enormous undertaking,” says one industry executive who asked not to be named. “It always leads back to the question: ‘How does this get paid for?’ Automakers can’t take a $100 hit per car.”
Still, some automotive engineers say there could be a cost advantage, at least by comparison to what could have been looming on the horizon. For years, they say, auto industry executives have been scratching their heads in an effort to determine how they would pay for costly radar, Lidar and ultrasonic sensors, which were supposed to serve as the future eyes and ears of the autonomous car.
“When you use vehicle-to-vehicle communications, you can replace some of the expensive sensors with much lower cost transceivers,” says Boules of GM. “And those transceivers will provide the same kind of information to the car.”
Boules says the elimination of those sensors will make it easier to endow vehicles with autonomy, especially in mid-size cars and entry-level vehicles.
Moreover, most industry experts believe federal and state governments may be willing to pick up the cost of roadside equipment, either as part of a public-private partnership or on their own.
“It’s an infrastructure cost that could be integrated into the cost of the traffic light,” Boules says. “The control box for the traffic signals can easily accommodate the additional transceivers and the incremental cost to the authorities would be nominal.”
The Road to Zero Fatalities
Industry experts say the effects reach beyond fatality counts. With vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, cars will now be able to talk with dealerships. A vehicle that “knows” it has an engine problem, for example, could use the communication system to tell the dealership, which in turn would have a better chance of fixing the problem while the vehicle is still under warranty. As a result, annual warranty costs, which account for about $17 to $19 billion in the U.S., could be reduced by as much as $10 billion.
That, of course, could be a double-edged sword for dealerships. When cars are in better condition, repair costs drop and service departments suffer.
Still, the concept is likely to be embraced by municipalities, which could be big beneficiaries of the new technology.
“We’re looking at billions of dollars in savings for the U.S. economy if this technology is deployed,” says McNew of TechnoCom. “With less car accidents, we’ll have less congestion and we’ll lower the money spent in responding to car accidents.”
Benefits like those are why the auto industry, its suppliers and government agencies are teaming up to make the concept happen. Ford Motor Co. and GM, for example, have partnered with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to form the Crash Avoidance Metrics Partnership (CAMP) to advance the concept of intelligent vehicles. The U.S. Dept. of Transportation, meanwhile, has launched Cooperative Intersection Collision Avoidance Systems (CICAS), an initiative aimed at helping the industry develop tools for deployment of the technology. In all, state and local governments are said to have invested more than $50 million in the idea.
That’s why most observers believe the technology will reach fruition soon. Suppliers say they expect to deploy 10,000 roadside units by the end of 2009 and possibly as many as 100,000 by 2011. Automakers expect the process to go a little slower, saying the roadside units won’t take off until large numbers of vehicles have embedded the transceivers.
“This is not a simple task,” Cole says of the deployment. “But the carrot is so huge, we know it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of how and when.”
Heading off Multi-Car Crashes
Using GPS and vehicle communications,
cars recognize sudden stops
Sudden stops have been known to cause multi-car crashes, particularly in bad weather.
Using vehicle-to-vehicle communications, however, could give drivers more time to react to those sudden stops, engineers say. With Vehicle Infrastructure Integration, cars could recognize hard braking as far as a quarter-mile ahead and relay that information to other vehicles behind them.
“Even if you only provide an audible warning, it gives drivers a chance to prepare,” says Nady Boules, director of the Electrical and Controls Integration Research Lab. for General Motors. “And that will save lives, particularly in bad weather.”
Finding That Icy Patch
Sensors, transceivers combine to alert other vehicles
|“Black ice,” the cause of countless accidents in northern states every year, could be more easily recognized using vehicle-to-vehicle communications, experts say.
On vehicles that have tire pressure monitoring or electronic stability control, sensors can quickly enable the main controller to identify potentially icy situations. Combining tire pressure information with yaw rate data, temperature data and windshield wiper status, vehicles can find slippery spots and wirelessly alert other cars.
“Cars can send the information to other cars,” says Kieran O’Sullivan, executive vice president of Continental Automotive Systems’ Connectivity Business Unit. “Or they can relay the information to the local authorities, so they can do something about a slippery spot on a bridge.”
By combining onboard capabilities, such as stability control and rain-sensing wipers with vehicle-to-vehicle communications, cars will know of upcoming slippery spots on bridges and highways.
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