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The Road Ahead - Connected Vehicles Are Coming

Emerging technologies to transform cars and improve safety called "breathtaking."

DOT connected vehicles
Wireless communication allows cars to be aware of all other vehicles on the road, even if the driver is not. Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
U.S. Department of Transportation
There’s a revolution brewing on America’s highways. The days of drivers independently navigating – and many times merely surviving – the rush of traffic in towns and along interstates are nearing an end. Government agencies, research institutes and auto manufacturers are edging us closer to a world in which our vehicles work cooperatively to bring each of us to our destinations more quickly and safely. The era of connected vehicles is dawning.

If you ever pause to think about the fact we routinely engage in hurtling ourselves at 70 miles per hour in large metal boxes mere feet or even inches away from other metal boxes doing the same, it’s a wonder we’re not smashing into each other at an even more alarming frequency. While we’ve been able to somewhat tame the Wild West on wheels, new advancements in technology and infrastructure will soon allow drivers and their vehicles to function as impromptu yet intelligent teams.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) Research and Innovative Technology Administration has been conducting research on connected vehicle technologies, applications and policies in order to lay the foundation for a real-world traffic environment in which cars communicate with each other and with nearby infrastructure.

At the forefront of this research, and at the heart of the purpose for it, the USDOT is investigating connected vehicle safety applications that will increase situational awareness and reduce or eliminate crashes through vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure data transmission.

According to the USDOT this will include applications that support driver advisories, driver warnings, and vehicle and infrastructure controls. These technologies, the agency notes, may potentially address up to 82 percent of crash scenarios with unimpaired drivers, preventing tens of thousands of automobile crashes every year.  

Kirk Steudle, Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America and the Director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, spoke during Governing’s “Optimizing Rideability - Intelligent Transportation for the Masses” webinar in December. Steudle said connected vehicles are the way forward as a more-of-the-same approach is no longer sufficient when it comes to traffic management.

“When we think about connected cars and when we think about all these other problems we have, we simply can’t afford to just build our way out of this congestion and all of these challenges,” he said. “We need to think smarter and we need to use technology. Technology can enable us to manage our existing systems, to optimize capacity, reduce costs, provide new and improved travel alternatives, improve vehicle and highway safety, and build new roads and bridges that are smarter to meet future demands.”

Steudle likened connected vehicle technology to the previous generation of air traffic control technology during which the FAA required airliners to broadcast basic direction, heading and speed. With a similar system integrated into automobile traffic, the vast amount of real-time data produced yields the potential for significant collision avoidance capabilities.

“One of the pieces that is really driving big data is using the technology for vehicles to communicate between each other, so the vehicle in front of you knows when the vehicle in front of it and three in front of that car are slowing down so it can avoid, ultimately, a rear end collision,” Steudle said.

Steudle pointed to a program conducted by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and the USDOT in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Safety Pilot Model Deployment involved some 2,800 vehicles equipped with dedicated short range communication (DSRC) technology that sought to test the viability of connected vehicle technology for reducing collisions. The pilot program ran from mid-2012 until the end of 2013. Of the 2,800 cars, Steudle explained, most of them broadcast a simple, basic safety message that indicated the car’s direction, heading and speed. These cars could not receive any data. Instead, they merely broadcast where they were and where they were going. There were also, however, a few hundred cars that were equipped to receive data as well.  Those vehicles “knew” they were interacting with the other test vehicles and were aware of those vehicles’ speed, heading and direction.

By most accounts, the pilot has produced very promising results. Speaking to a Senate committee last summer, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Administrator David Strickland said the "NHTSA believes it has the capabilities -- and the responsibilities -- to estimate the effectiveness of these crash avoidance systems, without waiting for years or crash data, in order to make regulatory decisions and save more lives. Without a doubt, the potential for emerging technologies to transform cars and improve safety is breathtaking."

In the real-world, what this means is a dramatically safer traffic environment according to Mike Brown, Staff Engineer at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI).

“To a driver it really enhances the situational awareness of the vehicle,” Brown said. “As a driver you cannot usually see stopped traffic ahead of you until you see the brake lights directly in front of you. What this kind of communication would allow you to do is your vehicle could receive an alert from multiple vehicles ahead that there has been a hard braking event so your vehicle could warn the driver appropriately.”

SwRI is the latest facility to join the USDOT’s Connected Vehicle Test Bed program. The test beds provide a research platform for connected vehicle applications designed for safety, mobility and the environment. Brown said that in addition to vehicle-to-vehicle communication, connected vehicles are also being designed to communicate with roadside infrastructure. Traffic signals, for example, will communicate to cars whether they’re about to turn red or green, allowing the vehicles to make informed decisions when approaching an intersection.

“From the infrastructure side out to vehicles you will have the traffic signal communicate its current phase and timing out to the vehicles so the vehicle can warn its driver if they’re about ready to run a red light,” Brown said. “It can then harmonize speed along arterials so if you’re coming up on a red light that’s a little ways a way your vehicle coming up on the intersection could make a decision to harmonize speed so you don’t have slam on the breaks because the light is about to turn green.”

Prior to the conclusion of the Safety Pilot Model Deployment, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had imposed a December 31, 2013 deadline on itself as to whether it would begin the process of requiring vehicles manufactured in the future to include connected vehicle technology. The decision was to be in part based on data gleaned from the program. However, the agency missed its deadline. In a statement issued on January 2, 2014, the NHTSA said “The Department of Transportation and NHTSA have made significant progress in determining the best course of action for proceeding with additional vehicle-to-vehicle communication activities and expect to announce a decision in the coming weeks.”

Most pin the blame for the decision delay on the inherent complexities of requiring auto manufacturers to start including technology that could fundamentally change the very nature of driving a car. Some automakers, too, have shown resistance to connected vehicle requirements, arguing they will add costs that will have to be passed on to the consumer.  

During a panel discussion on connected vehicles at the Consumer Electronics Show on January 7, Toyota’s National Manager for Technology and Innovation Policy Hilary Cain said “There’s a lot of regulatory uncertainty right now and it’s stifling innovation. We won’t deploy technology until we know.”

NHTSA Administrator Strickland, also on the panel, said of connected vehicles that safety was the number one priority, according to Politico. “I will tell you from the part of the agency NHTSA, as a safety regulator, and there are other regulatory bodies…we have only one chance to get this right,” Strickland said.


Chad Vander Veen is a former contributing editor for Emergency Management magazine, and previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.