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Roads are about to get a lot smarter

Connected car technology will make driving safer and more efficient

Created date

March 1st, 2016
cars connected through technology
cars connected through technology

Imagine if your car could anticipate a crash and not only warn you about it, but also change speed or direction to avoid danger. Imagine if your car could communicate with the infrastructure—so it would know when the next traffic signal is about to change and adjust its speed to maximize energy use. Imagine if while driving, your car hits a pothole and actually transmits the exact location of that pothole to the road maintenance department so it can be repaired. Not only are those scenarios possible, they’re not too far away. 

The roads you drive on are about to get a whole lot smarter. In the next year or two, the automotive industry will begin to deploy smart vehicles as cities begin implementing technology that will allow vehicles to connect to each other and to the traffic infrastructure. This technology will make American roadways safer, more energy efficient, and more intelligent. 

In his last State of the Union address, President Obama announced a ten-year, nearly $4 billion investment in real-world pilot projects to test connected vehicle systems in designated corridors and work with industry leaders to ensure a common multistate framework for connected and autonomous vehicles. 

“We are on the cusp of a new era in automotive technology with enormous potential to save lives, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and transform mobility for the American people,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

The technology

Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technologies will revolutionize transportation. According to the Department of Transportation (USDOT), when V2V technologies are combined with V2I communications systems, (referred to as V2X) about 81% of all vehicle crashes involving nonimpaired drivers, 83% of all light-vehicle crashes, and 72% of all heavy truck crashes, annually, could be prevented. Overall, connected vehicle technology could prevent approximately 5.1 million accidents a year, saving 18,000 lives.

V2X relies on radio technology known as Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC). It operates on a special 5.9 GHz bandwidth set aside specifically for this purpose. A two-way wireless communications technology, it can transmit and receive messages within a 300 meter range—updating and broadcasting messages to a driver up to ten times per second. The devices can support the exchange of information between vehicles, infrastructure, and other roadside equipment and give the vehicle and the driver a 360-degree view of roadway activity.

Pilot program

Starting in 2011, USDOT conducted driver clinics in six cities to assess how drivers responded to the technology. The findings were mostly positive, indicating that nine out of ten drivers had an interest in using the technology in real-world driving scenarios. There was, however, uncertainty among some motorists about whether or not a driver might confuse certain safety warnings.

Between 2012 and 2014, USDOT conducted a pilot program in Ann Arbor, Mich., overseen by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. It deployed 2,843 vehicles and collected 115 billion messages from 35 million miles of driving.

Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade, Dr. Peter Sweatman, director of the institute, said that the local community embraced the technology. “They like the idea that vehicles can be retrofitted and that all road users benefit. Our volunteers reported receiving warnings that prevented crashes. And, of course, analytics on the system testing data by USDOT confirmed DSRC’s life-saving potential on a large scale.”

The Ann Arbor pilot program continues to test V2X applications, and now includes cyclists and pedestrians in the mix. 

“Parents in the Ann Arbor public schools system are excited about schoolchildren—and students of all ages—being connected into life-saving V2X via smartphones. We have also found that motorcyclists love the idea that, with V2X, they are more likely to be detected by other vehicles,” said Sweatman. 

Over the next two years, 20,000 vehicles in southeast Michigan will be deployed to test a “smart corridor” along I-96 and I-696. This will be the first sustainable production-ready V2X deployment in the U.S.

Coming soon to your vehicle

The effectiveness of connected vehicle technology relies on having all vehicles capable of communicating through DSRC. General Motors CEO Mary Barra announced that GM will deploy V2V technology in the 2017 Cadillac CTS, which will be available for sale in the latter part of 2016. Other auto manufacturers will be on board as well. In addition, technology firms will offer devices that can be retrofitted into older model cars. 

USDOT is aggressively pursuing V2X implementation. To spur interest, it created the “Smart City Challenge” competition. One mid-sized city will be awarded up to $40 million in funding to implement “bold, data-driven ideas to improve lives by making transportation safer, easier, and more reliable.”

While connected technology promises many benefits, it is not without controversy. There is concern about how secure the system will be. Could hackers infiltrate it and wreak havoc? When a disruption occurs, how fast can it be remedied? How can vehicles connect to the overall system and still protect individual car owners’ privacy? Lawmakers, auto manufacturers, and technology companies will need to address those issues before V2X is deployed on a national scale.