"Intelligent" Cars "Talk" With Highway, One Another

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
May 21, 2004
In Minnesota, state police cars, ambulances, and government vehicles
will soon carry a small piece of extra cargo—a sensing device that
collects data as it rolls down the state's roadways. Ford Motor Company
officials call the program a prototype for a next-generation
travel-advisory system.

During their daily rounds, state-owned vehicles will gather traffic-related data like speed, location, and direction of travel. The sensors will also record weather information, such as windshield-wiper and headlight use, outside temperature, and traction-control-system data.

The data will be wirelessly transmitted to the state Condition Acquisition Reporting System (CARS), where analysts can use it to create weather and traffic advisories. The advisories will be available on highway message signs, special telephone lines, and Web sites.

"With GPS data, weather and road condition info, and these road sensors, we can also help the [department of transportation] to deploy municipal resources correctly," said Ron Miller, project leader for Intelligent Vehicle Technologies at Ford Research and Advanced Engineering. "They can send salt, or road repair crews where they are needed. It can also help dispatchers route emergency-response teams and road-maintenance crews."

Miller explains that the current technology test is just the tip of the iceberg. "We can't have message signs everywhere, and we have to get the information to drivers as soon as possible, so we will have to bring technology into the vehicle itself."

That could happen through the car radio or cell phones. Both methods are under examination.

"We're not the only ones looking at this," Miller explained. "The working group VII [Vehicle-Infrastructure Integration] involves all of us trying to look at standards, and how to deploy this type of technology."

VII is a U. S. Department of Transportation initiative that involves automakers; federal, state, and city governments; technology companies; and trade associations.

"We are taking advantage of all reasonable means to prevent crashes and reduce the deaths on our highways," U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said. "Treating roads as an extension of vehicles, using both design and technology, will help prevent crashes and make driving safer."

Building Better Drivers

Today's high-tech new vehicles may have up to 200 sensors that measure everything from engine processes to outside air temperature. "Intelligent vehicle" advocates seek to capitalize on that information and use it to more efficiently and safely manage transportation systems.

"Recently we've begun to explore vehicle-to-roadside and vehicle-to-vehicle communication," a U.S. Federal Highway Administration (FHA) official told National Geographic News. "That's sort of a hot new area that offers potential for a whole new family of services."

"We think some of them could have significant safety and mobility benefits—and by the way, some commercial benefits as well. And that's OK."

Neil Schuster, president and CEO of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, notes that some intelligent transport initiatives have already become standard in recent years.

"Every major city uses cameras, sensors, and other technology to manage traffic, to make real-time decisions and let people know what's happening with things like electronic road signs," Schuster said.

"We don't realize how much a vehicle these days is a computer," he continued. "Large companies can use these technologies to track and manage fleets. Many people have intelligent-transportation features on their cell phones, or types of navigation systems where they can get real-time maps. We're trying to make people aware of what's possible.

"I can't break 120 on the golf course, no matter what I do. I can buy the best clubs, I can use those illegal balls, but I have some real limitations as an individual. As a driver we also have our limits, but technology can help me be a better driver."

Car Talk

But can technology help reduce the staggering number of accidents and injuries on the road? One way it might do that is through the future prospects of vehicle-to-vehicle communication.

"We had this concept of talking cars," Ford's Miller said. "What would they say to each other? They might describe their vehicle type, where they are, how fast they are going and in which direction. That information might be similar to the transponder system that the [U.S. Federal Aviation Administration] uses. With that information, they can give directions to pilots to avoid possible threats. You could conceivably do the same thing with a vehicle. Eventually you might warn the driver, and if he didn't respond to a developing situation, the system could do a brake assist or a steering assist. There are a lot of safety applications."

There's also tremendous room for safety improvement on the nation's roads.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that driver error or inattention caused 20 to 30 percent of the 6.3 million accidents reported in 2000. Most rear-end, road-departure, lane-change and intersection accidents are preventable. Their cost is high; over 40,000 deaths are reported per year, with millions more injured. Extended costs to the U.S. economy are estimated at 200 to 300 billion dollars.

Vehicle-to-vehicle communication faces a serious infrastructure challenge. For it to be effective, all cars must be equipped with compatible sensors.

Not so with vehicle-to-roadside communication, such as that in the Ford-Minnesota initiative.

"If you took every car on the road in rush hour, what if even 15 percent of those people had the information to make a different choice?" Schuster asks. That makes a huge difference, and everybody benefits.

But everyone involved seems to agree that reaching even those limited numbers will be a challenge.

One major roadblock is the need for standardization throughout the industry and across different governmental agencies. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has, however, allocated a bandwidth for intelligent-vehicles purposes, which the FHA official described as "a relatively generous spectrum for this purpose in an age when the spectrum is pretty tight."

Another problematic issue is personal privacy. Many people are concerned with the possibility of tracking individual vehicles, though the FHA official insists privacy is a primary concern of government as well. "We are making an effort to be anonymous," he said. "We're not interested in tracking individual vehicles. Everyone is very sensitive about the privacy issues."

Finally, there are the enormous institutional policy and funding challenges inherent in such an ambitious and wide-reaching plan. Who will benefit the most from such technology, and therefore who will pay for it?

It could be consumers who pay to drive the safety and traffic technology forward. The systems could be packaged with in-car concierge systems, which may prove attractive to car shoppers.

"History suggests that the real killer apps for this technology might be things that we haven't planned," the FHA official notes. "In addition to safety, that's a major reason why industry might be interested."

This story was independently reported by National Geographic News. Ford Motor Company provided funding for coverage of the automotive industry.

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