Coming soon: cars that talk to one another

Coming soon: cars that talk to one another

Vehicle-to-vehicle systems broadcast a car's position, speed and other information, such as windshield wiper activation, to other cars in the vicinit

Coming soon: cars that talk to one another

The Cadillac CTS is racing towards a blind corner, raising the anxiety of its passengers. Suddenly, a chime sounds and a “front cross traffic alert” warning flashes on a screen attached to the windshield. Even though there’s nothing visible ahead, the driver jams on the brakes — just as another Cadillac CTS jumps out from around the corner. Disaster averted.

This near miss is all for show — a demonstration of vehicle-to-vehicle, or V2V, communications. Vehicle-to-vehicle systems broadcast a car’s position, speed and other information, such as windshield wiper activation, to other cars in the vicinity. In the test, conducted in a closed parking lot, a building obstructed the view, so neither the driver nor the various camera and radar sensors in the car could detect the other Cadillac. But thanks to V2V communications, the drivers were warned in advance.

“The beauty of this is it doesn’t have to see the other vehicle,” Matthew Kirsch, engineer group manager for automated driving and active safety at Cadillac, said in an interview. “And it can communicate with many different vehicles ahead.”

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that up to 80% of crashes not attributed to driver impairment could be eliminated or mitigated by V2V devices. The agency plans to require that future cars and light trucks include the hardware for dedicated short-range communications devices. The devices will use a portion of the broadcast spectrum that is set aside specifically for this purpose.

Many in the automotive business have been waiting for just such a standard. “I’m happy the US government is pushing the regulation,” said Lars Reger, chief technology officer of NXP Semiconductor’s automotive business unit. “It’s a big catalyst.”

General Motors is not waiting for the final mandate. It just announced that, starting this month, its 2017 Cadillac CTS will be the first car to use short-range communication for alerts between vehicles up to 1,000 feet apart. The warnings will include alarms about disabled cars and vehicles that are braking hard ahead, as well as slippery road conditions.

The trouble is, only other Cadillac CTS drivers with the same system will see the alerts. BMW and Mercedes-Benz find themselves in similar circumstances. Both companies offer hazard warning systems on certain models, but they can communicate only with specific car models with identical systems. Furthermore, BMW and Mercedes do not use the short-range technology but rely instead on existing cellular networks to transmit alerts.

Some automakers as well as wireless carriers and chipmakers, think that cellular systems will be better suited to handling vehicle-to-vehicle communications in the future. And, they say, cellular networks can handle connections to devices like smart traffic lights, tolls and other parts of the transportation infrastructure — so-called vehicle-to-everything or V2X communications. Most of these companies have their eyes on future 5G networks, which promise more capacity and broadband connections 10 times faster than is available today.

“You have to consider the scale aspect,” said Nakul Duggal, who manages the automotive portfolio for Qualcomm. “How do you do it with street furniture — signs and traffic lights — in future smart cities?” Cellular networks can also share information about traffic situations miles ahead. Jaguar Land Rover is working with a Chicago-based startup, HAAS Alert, to explore delivering automatic warnings about emergency vehicles to other drivers.

“We want people to know 40 to 50 seconds ahead,” said Cory James Hohs, chief executive of HAAS, “so we’re using what’s available today, and that’s cellular.” Not only could drivers be warned about ambulances, for example, but th­ey could also get alerts about trains at crossings.

As of today, there is no official 5G specification, and Duggal does not expect to see a substantial transition from 4G to 5G systems until 2022 or 2023. Engineers have been working for more than a decade on specifications for dedicated short-range communications devices. Tests last year in Michigan with more than a half-dozen major automakers helped persuade the national highway agency to push for new regulations.

Harman, a unit of Samsung that supplies communications equipment to automakers, says some car companies have expressed interest in using dedicated short-range communications, or DSRC, devices, while others are taking a more passive approach. “I don’t know if NHTSA itself can be the catalyst,” said Mike Tzamaloukas, vice president for navigation technologies at Harman, “but they can make it more urgent.”

With Wi-Fi in many connected cars, the short-range systems may be less of a stretch because the specification and its radio frequencies are essentially an extension of Wi-Fi. That may help keep down the cost of adding the capability to new cars.

By directly communicating between vehicles, the short-range systems are not slowed down by having to communicate with cellular base stations. They would also work in the large parts of the rural US that do not have cellular service. Moreover, they could also be rolled out without any major infrastructure investments.

Wireless carriers

Designers working on the forthcoming 5G specification point out that it also includes direct vehicle-to-vehicle communications that do not depend on a separate cell network. Duggal of Qualcomm said such direct 5G communications should be up to twice as fast as dedicated short-range communications devices; that could prove critical in delivering warnings in some situations, such as when a driver is trying to pass a vehicle on a highway while another car is approaching from the opposite direction at 65 or 75 mph.

Wireless carriers also point out that 5G is a forward-looking platform that could be used to handle demanding, high-bandwidth applications like transmitting a video feed from a car’s onboard camera to the internet to collect information about road conditions.

Cadillac says that V2V technology is important to the development of autonomous vehicles, pointing to the introduction of its Super Cruise semiautonomous option, expected this year. But improving driver safety now is the impetus behind introducing the short-range systems today. “That’s why we’re not going to just wait until someone tells us we can do this,” said Chris Bonelli, who handles communications for advanced technology at GM.

“There’s a strong personal motivation for this,” said Rupert Poole, senior collaborations manager for future technology at Jaguar Land Rover. “When people ask, can we really expect to save lives with this, the answer is a resounding yes.”