Many benefits, many questions surround vehicle-to-vehicle communications

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Upcoming studies will help determine whether the U.S. DOT will mandate inter-vehicle communications.

Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technologies address three key automotive trends: improving safety, conserving fuel, and reducing emissions. But there are still questions about whether this communications technology will ever make it onto vehicles.

The U.S. Dept. of Transportation is preparing to make a decision on whether to mandate deployment of technology that researchers and automotive suppliers have spent more than a decade developing. Pilot projects set for later this year will test the communication standards and infrastructure strategies that will let vehicles communicate between themselves and with roadside stations. The benefits could be significant.

“This technology can prevent crashes, improve traffic flow, and reduce emissions,” said Mike Schagrin, Connected Vehicle Safety Program Manager for the DOT.

Safety is one of the primary benefits, Schagrin said at the recent V2X for Auto Safety and Mobility conference in Novi, MI.

“We’ve done studies that show that vehicle-to-infrastructure addresses 80% of the accidents in the U.S.,” he said. “That’s often incorrectly confused with the statement that we can prevent 80% of the accidents. What it really means is that this doesn’t really address one-car crashes.”

Technologies such as dedicated short range communications (DSRC) technology that provide a dedicated frequency for vehicle communications have been in development for several years. Government officials plan to reach a decision point next year.

A test in Ann Arbor, MI, set to begin in August, “has huge implications” for this decision, Schagrin explained. It will include 2836 cars and trucks that will be driven on 75 mi (121 km) of highways equipped with infrastructures for DSRC and cellular communications.

Data will be collected for about a year, and then it will be analyzed before a decision is made. The decision will be either that V2V and V2I systems should be mandated or that there is insufficient data so further testing is needed.

“If the decision is to go forward, then this will go to the rulemaking phase, which can take one to 10 years, hopefully more like one or two. Once the rules are completed, there will be a phase-in period, which may be around three years,” Schagrin said.

Industry watchers note that government phase-in periods can vary widely.

“After the electronic stability control mandate, it took nine years until there was 100% new vehicle compliance,” said Richard Wallace, Director of Transportation System Analysis at the Center for Automotive Research. “Tire pressure monitors took only two years.”

The long timetable and other issues raise many questions, most of them based on the chicken-or-egg conundrum. One is how cash-strapped government agencies will pay for roadside stations that can reach only a few cars. Another is that benefits won’t really be realized until at least 10% of the cars in a region have DSRC connections, since there won’t be many other vehicles to talk to each other until that level of penetration is reached.

Another question stems from efforts in other geographies where research programs and field studies are also running. That’s raising concerns that many standards could be adopted, making it more difficult for equipment makers to gain economies of scale.

“We’re doing a lot of work on harmonization in Europe and Asia,” Schagrin said. “The car companies all want common platforms that they can use globally.”

These questions have put V2V technologies on the back burner for many automakers.

“Right now, there’s no vehicle-to-vehicle activity whatsoever at Fiat,” said Edward Griffor, Technical Fellow at Chrysler. He added that given Fiat’s focus on telematics and other communications technologies, the company could ramp up these efforts quickly.

Schagrin noted that deployment won’t be driven only by OEMs. Parents and others interested in improving safety could drive sales of aftermarket products that could be deployed quickly.

“We can make changes much more quickly if we leverage aftermarket devices,” he said.

While automotive aftermarket companies generally seem quite interested, Schagrin noted that after he has made presentations at consumer electronics conferences, consumer companies have shown lukewarm interest at best. He believes that even with government mandates and aftermarket equipment, it will take a long time before the majority of vehicles can talk to each other.

“There are currently around 250 million vehicles in the U.S., so even with aftermarket devices this is a huge undertaking,” Schagrin said.

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