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One step closer to KITT: cars that talk to each other

One step closer to KITT: cars that talk to each other

Posting in Cities

Vehicle-to-vehicle communication could save money for businesses, help scientists keep tabs on city pollution levels and prevent car-on-car and car-on-pedestrian crashes. So what's in store?

It's morning rush hour in the New York metropolitan area and thousands of cars are inching toward the city. On top of the usual congestion -- hey, it's New York -- the thick, gray fog that blankets the roadway makes visibility limited. It's so difficult to see, in fact, that the sound of screeching tires reaches your ears before you see the brake lights on the car ahead. By then, it's too late to avoid a rear-end collision.

Within a few years (or more likely, decades) such a scenario could be obsolete. If both cars were fitted with vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems, a signal could pass between the two when they sense they are getting too close for comfort. That signal might go straight to the trailing vehicle's brakes, slowing it without the driver moving a muscle. A more likely and less potentially dangerous response would be for the signal to alert the driver to a braking vehicle ahead. The alert -- which could be a beeping alarm, flashing light or vibrating steering wheel -- would come fast enough for the driver to recognize the danger and react.

While the automotive industry initially focused in-car technology on improving navigation and entertainment systems, an emerging trend in vehicle-to-vehicle communications could do more for drivers than provide directions to a friend's house or keep the kids occupied with a movie. Vehicle manufacturers and researchers say vehicle-to-vehicle communication could do everything from save money for businesses to help scientists keep tabs on city pollution levels to prevent car-on-car and car-on-pedestrian crashes. "With a single device, you can provide this 360-degree safety envelope," said Don Grimm, a senior researcher for General Motors Research and Development.

Vehicle manufacturers are slowly but surely moving closer to fully-integrated vehicle-to-vehicle networking. Toyota's app integration service, Entune, was featured in 2012 models including the Camry and the Tacoma. General Motors announced the creation of an app store for its vehicles. And starting this month, the Crash Avoidance Metrics Partnership -- which has eight vehicle manufacturer participants -- will begin a U.S. Department of Transportation-sponsored pilot program to test vehicle awareness devices in hundreds of fleet vehicles. The effort is meant, in part, to help the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration decide in 2013 if it should begin the process of mandating or incentivizing vehicle-to-vehicle systems in new cars.

Driving through the cloud

The idea of a vehicle-to-vehicle communication interface grew out of the notion that cars on the road should "talk to" a centralized system, said Bhaskar Krishnamachari, an associate professor of electrical engineering at the University of Southern California. For instance, after a car thumped over a pothole, it would automatically upload the pothole's location to the nearest Wi-Fi access point. But the data never reached other vehicles. Now that many drivers carry smartphones with expensive data service plans, Krishnamachari said, its even more important to find inexpensive or free direct communication modes, like vehicle-to-vehicle communication, to reduce our cost of online access.

For Mario Gerla, a computer scientist at the University of California Los Angeles, vehicle-to-vehicle communication is about using the mobile vehicular cloud, rather than the Internet, to store car communication. By tapping into a vehicle's own processing power and running applications on the mobile vehicular cloud -- which Gerla said is mostly still a research concept-- manufacturers can move the trend from vehicle-to-Internet communication to vehicle-to-vehicle interface. "The new trend is vehicle-to-vehicle," he said.

The first frontier is in fleet vehicles. With more than 9 million fleet vehicles in use by businesses in the United States, they could constitute a market of more than $1 billion, said Jason Collins, vice president of emerging technology and innovation at the global communication company Alcatel-Lucent. With such a strong business angle, the company directed some of the efforts of its collaborative ng Connect Program (the "ng" stands for "next generation") toward the enterprise space. In fleet vehicles, Collins said, vehicle-to-vehicle communication could introduce new features such as fleet management and car-to-car video conferencing.

Take, for instance, a plumbing van outfitted with a Google Android-based tablet packed with plumber-specific applications and infrastructure, Collins said. When one plumber realizes he's missing a key piece of piping for a job, he could use the system to see if any colleagues in the area have the part. Another plumber, running behind schedule, might blast a message to nearby colleagues asking them to take her next assignment. In between jobs, plumbers might update their interactive maintenance manual with useful tips. Though such features might sound pricey, Collins said the system would likely be cheaper than the industrialized, armored laptops many maintenance workers currently lug to job sites. Instead of spending upwards of $5,000 on a single laptop, he said, the company could buy a dozen tablets and store everything in the cloud.

Avoiding danger

In the world of personal cars, the benefits of vehicle-to-vehicle communications are more than just monetary -- they're potentially life-saving. One vehicle might tell another that it's in its blind spot, Grimm said, or drivers could be alerted if a car five vehicles ahead -- and well out of eyeline -- is braking hard to avoid hitting a deer. "We have highly reliable systems," he said. "Intuitively, we believe it will reduce the number of crashes."

Potholes are another example, Krishnamachari said. Instead of the pothole's location being sent to a centralized access point, it would be blasted to nearby vehicles. To keep the blasts from becoming too redundant -- and to prevent false alarms -- a network might aggregate the information first, he said.

Even bicyclists and pedestrians could be safer when cars communicate with each other, Grimm said. Once a smartphone is integrated with a vehicle, he said, it could identify nearby pedestrians and bicyclists with smartphones -- and help the driver avoid their path. Construction workers, Grimm added, could also benefit from a feature that alerts drivers when they're nearby.

If, even with such technology, a crash still happens, Gerla said, vehicle-to-vehicle communications might prevent the inevitable post-accident rubbernecking. After minor collisions, he said, drivers now pull over to take down each other's insurance information. The delay creates more traffic -- and danger for drivers forced to stand unprotected on a busy roadway. What if, Gerla asked, vehicles were fitted with front-facing cameras, so passers-by could read and store the license plate numbers of the vehicles involved in the crash? When insurance companies investigate the accident, he said, they'll find the witnesses and access the license plate information. And a minor collision, without the frustrating after effects, would be just that.

While the safety measures built into vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems take precedence, manufacturers are also interested in the entertainment side of the technology. When you're surrounded by traffic on the road to Las Vegas, Gerla said, downloading a wildly-popular soccer match using a 3G mobile broadband connection might be slow -- or impossible. But with vehicle-to-vehicle communication, one car out of dozens could use the network to download the game, then share it with others nearby using the mobile vehicular cloud.

Like the streaming video service Netflix, once your car understands your taste preferences, it could automatically download relevant content from nearby vehicles, Krishnamachari said. "You're not downloading them off the Internet on demand," he said. Instead, your car is "storing locally content that might be useful to you" and making it available when you ask. One example, Gerla said, might be a video of your trip to Virginia Beach. Instead of uploading the movie to YouTube, where it would only interest a fraction of the users, you might share it through vehicle-to-vehicle communication with cars nearby that are heading toward the vacation spot.

Taking vehicle-to-vehicle communication to the macro level, Krishnamachari said, connected cars might feature data collection sensors that help researchers monitor conditions such as air quality, pollution and radiation. "You have hundreds of thousands of cars on the road measuring interesting phenomenon," he said. Such work is already being done in China, Krishnamachari said, where GPS traces were collected from thousands of taxis over a month-long reporting period.

Driven to distraction?

With new technology comes new concerns. Before bringing vehicle-to-vehicle technology to the masses, manufacturers are considering issues such as driver distraction, information management and data security. When it comes to drivers receiving messages from other vehicles -- including alerts that could change the way a person drives -- manufacturers are cautious, Gerla said. If an inaccurate message leads to a crash, he said, the manufacturer could be held responsible. With vehicles automatically sharing information with one another, simply because they're in the same vicinity, Krishnamachari said, what's to stop a virus from being downloaded to a car's internal system? "When you look at it from [the manufacturers'] perspective," he said, "they're very careful about doing this at a large scale."

Privacy is another potential hiccup. While a vehicle-to-vehicle communication system might broadcast a car's location, speed and braking status, Grimm said, it will not release the driver's identity. But will a driver's other data -- from her route to work to her entertainment preferences -- also be kept hidden? Will the driver be blasted with an advertisement for a half-priced Frappuccino every morning when she passes her local Starbucks? If the car goes the way of Facebook, Collins said, drivers could eventually be trading their privacy for lower prices. There are still unanswered questions around the privacy rules drivers will want -- and the information they'll be willing to give up.

Cost is another potential barrier, Collins said, especially on the personal vehicle side. How much is it worth to entertain your children during a road trip to grandmother's house? It's also tough to justify adding vehicle-to-vehicle systems to personal cars if the driver won't reap the technology's benefits within a few years, Grimm said. Though a $100 system could save lives, he said, such benefits would only come to fruition if the technology reaches a critical mass in the marketplace.

Rather than wait for new connected cars to reach a critical mass, Grimm said older cars could be retroactively fitted with vehicle-to-vehicle systems by taking advantage of cars' current services, such as displays and chimes. Several vehicles already integrate smartphones with cars. Tightly coupling the phone to the vehicle -- similarly to how you might pair a phone with a vehicle for hands-free calling -- could enable vehicle-to-vehicle applications. So even drivers in 5-year-old Hondas could receive pothole warnings.

In the future, Collins said, cars will coordinate better. They might alert each other to intentions -- "I'm driving from home to work now" -- and traffic patterns. Shared knowledge means better choices. With vehicles sharing information, a driver could learn that, based on traffic patterns, he could drive five miles per hour slower and get to work three minutes faster because he wouldn't cause stop-and-go traffic. That group-based behavior, Collins said, requires knowledge of what other cars are doing right now.

Krishnamachari once thought vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems would reach personal cars by 2020. Now his optimism fluctuates. "Car companies in general tend to be conservative about tech in their cars," Krishnamachari said. "It's a huge investment." Drivers don't change cars as often as they swap for new cell phones and computers, he said, so any new vehicle technology needs to have long-lasting staying power.

But as long as manufacturers hold back from deploying vehicle-to-vehicle systems at a large scale, there won't be enough connected cars on the road to give drivers the full benefits. Even if 1 million connected cars were deployed, Grimm said, there are still more than 200 million other vehicles in the United States alone. "You need a certain number of vehicles to provide these benefits," he said. "If there's only a few hundred thousand of you around, you're never going to drive past each other."

Photo: Brett Jordan/Flickr

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure