VII highway communication system gains momentum

  • 04-Aug-2008 11:26 EDT
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Michigan DOT’s testbed lets operators monitor traffic data gathered using VII links.

Efforts to set up a national network to let vehicles communicate with each other and with roadside stations are continuing. Highway tests for the Vehicle Infrastructure Integration (VII) system are finishing, and techniques for funding production networks are beginning to take shape.

The VII project is being developed to reduce accidents and congestion. At sites such as hidden intersections, monitoring stations will signal that vehicles are coming, and input from vehicles can alert drivers of conditions such as black ice or heavy congestion. The project is being advanced by a number of entities that have invested millions.

“This is a unique partnership, with $56 million in funding," said VII Consortium President Dave Henry, who is also a Senior Manager at Chrysler LLC. "The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), state and local DOTs, and automakers are all participating. Vehicle-to-vehicle communications and intersection collision avoidance can be supported.”

Safety is the primary goal of the project. Participants hope it can reduce the number of fatalities on U.S. highways, which would be considered catastrophic in other industries.

“43,000 deaths per year is the equivalent of a 747 crashing every week. That’s why the DOT is very passionate about VII,” said Greg Krueger, ITS Program Manager for the Michigan DOT.

Krueger noted that a proof-of-concept test began last November and was set to run through September 2008 near Detroit. It has 24 WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) sites that cover 75 mi (120 km) of roadway in an area that is about 45 square mi (116 square km). Twenty-five vehicles from four automakers are being driven on these roadways.

That test and another testbed in California appear to be successful. "Our sense is that the technology works,” said Scott Belcher, President of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. “Most of the technical hurdles have been addressed.”

However, not everything is finalized. Developers are still looking at a few different communication schemes, raising the likelihood that more than one technology may see usage. “Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) is a key enabler, although we’ll soon see more from Wi-Fi and WiMAX,” Henry said. DSRC is a 5.9-GHz standard approved by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in 1999.

Implementing VII poses something of a chicken and egg scenario. Until roadside stations are in place, automakers will not put it on cars. But if cars cannot receive signals, why build those stations?

Proponents feel that there is enough interest to overcome that hurdle. They note that it will take a while to make an impact, but it will not require a huge number of cars on the road before benefits in safety will be realized.

“When this is on about 10% of cars, you can start to gain something in safety,” said Dave Acton, Vice President at Connexis LLC.

Those implementations will depend heavily on government grants. However, promoters note that industry will play a role in the funding of roadside beacons.

“Deploying a national VII system could cost $8 billion,” said John Peracchio, Managing Member of Peracchio & Co. “Private equity is willing to help in this space.”

Private investment will be driven by commercial applications. Once safety goals are met, the FCC will permit companies to use additional bandwidth for commercial interests.

“If we get the safety stuff done, we might be able to add features,” Henry said. “The FCC’s final ruling allows private companies to use it for commercial ventures.”

Many of those services may be paid for on demand basis. That is important since many drivers, such as summer vacationers in other states, will not want to pay monthly subscription fees.

The technology will support services that send a fair amount of data to a vehicle. Those transmissions can be synchronized so files can be transferred from many roadside transmitters.

“When you’re moving at 80 mph and getting part of a signal from one station, we’ve proven you can pick up the rest of the message from other stations,” Henry said. “That means payments and invoicing can be completed at high speeds, which is critical for commercial applications.”

Once the services are in place, a number of different applications are likely to emerge. States are already looking at ways to use the links.

“In Michigan, we’re looking at ways VII data can help us manager snowplow crews,” Krueger said.

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