The Real Car Talk When Your Car Talks to its Neighbors

“I’m stuck in traffic,” the Civic explained. “Maybe you should take an alternate route.”

“I’m turning right now,” replied the Transit Connect. “I’ve got a rush delivery so thanks for the tip.”

While the conversation might not go exactly like that, by this fall nearly 3,000 vehicles -“ from cars to commercial trucks to city buses -“ will be communicating with each other, with traffic lights and other infrastructure components in a real-world test of Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) communications in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Funded in part by Ford Motor Co. and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the test is being administered by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI). (Sorry about the acronyms but it’s SOP in government and academia.)

Mike Shulman, Ford tech genius behind the V2V project.

Mike Shulman is Ford’s tech genius behind the project. His work led to the first commercial use of radar on a vehicle as a collision-avoidance system, so he’s well versed in implementing technology as a problem-solving tool to help reduce the 37,000 fatalities that occur on American roads.

“We’ve been working for a long time on passive safety,” Shulman says. “Things like air bags and seat belts and crush zones to minimize the injury to an occupant when they’re in a crash. More recently we’ve been working on what we call ‘active safety’ -“ how the vehicle can sense what’s going on around it and warn the driver or take some control to mitigate a crash.”

Shulman explains that he has been very successful with getting radar installed on some new Ford vehicles at least. “There are three radars: One looks out in the front to see the cars ahead and do an adaptive cruise control function so if you’ve set your speed at 70 and the car ahead of you is doing 60, it’ll slow you down and maintain a headway. We have radars on the sides that can monitor your blind zones, we have cameras in back and front to help warn you if you’re about to back into a problem or are drifting out of your lane of traffic.”

But all those safety devices are on newer Ford vehicles and primarily on higher-end ones.

What Shulman -“ and Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford -“ want is to have the rest of the cars on the road able to communicate with each other about their position, speed, braking activity and other conditions. That way cars that aren’t as well equipped as those high-end Ford products will still be able to help their drivers be more aware of conditions around them, even those they can’t necessarily see for themselves.

The answer, according to Shulman is Wi-Fi. “Each Ford Sync installation has a built-in Wi-Fi receiver. The system we’re talking about has a special add-on Wi-Fi transmitter to get messages from one car to another. Ten times a second each car broadcasts out a little message that says ‘here’s my position, here’s my speed, here’s the direction I’m going. Mostly as a driver you wouldn’t know about it, but once in a while if you’ve made a mistake, or aren’t paying attention or somebody else did something they shouldn’t, you’d get a warning.

“It’s like a vigilant passenger that’s always there to help you.”

Ford is leading an effort with General Motors Corp., Honda, Toyota, Nisan, Mercedes, Volkswagen, Audi, Hyundai and Kia to agree on “what messages we’re going to send each other, how often we’re going to send them, how accurate the data needs to be -“ because we see an opportunity to have a really big impact on safety. NHTSA estimates this can address more than 80 percent of all vehicle-to-vehicle crashes.”

Most later model cars already have the capability to know the necessary details they’ll need to transmit over a special Wi-Fi channel. And, currently, many of them have the reception capability. What they don’t have is the physical ability to transmit that data to the cars around them.

Thus the test.

There have been similar preliminary proof-of-concept tests of V2V communications in Australia and Europe but none has been as extensive as the Ann Arbor project will be with its nearly 3,000 vehicles and fixed sensory devices all talking to each other.

The three types of V2V that will be installed in selected volunteer vehicles.

Each of the volunteer vehicles will get one of three types of communication device, according to UMTRI.

  • There’s a Vehicle Awareness Device that transmits to, and receives information from, other vehicles. This is the base model for potential inclusion in future new cars.
  • There’s a prototype Aftermarket Safety Device that not only transmits and receives information but also includes a speaker for audio warnings.
  • Finally, there’s the total geek version that collects and stores a variety of data that then is downloaded (anonymously) by the researchers at UMTRI. It will analyze, among other things, how the driver reacts after being given a warning that something is about to happen.

None of the alternatives in the test will result in a permanent alteration to the volunteers’ vehicles.

The engineers who worked on the project won’t be able to participate because, as Shulman says, “they would understand exactly how the system works and try to stretch it to its limits to see where they could break it. But we want to give it to people who are more typical everyday drivers. How do they like it, how do they use it and what kinds of problems they have, if any.”

The designers of the study hope that the results will be so strong on the side of reducing crashes and injury that some sort of similar product will be built in -“ or, in the case of the aftermarket safety device, added on -“ to all vehicles in the next few years.

Part of the $20 million – $25 million in government funding will equip eight Ford vehicles as sort of rolling laboratories. “Those vehicles will have our vehicle-to-vehicle systems, but will also have cameras and radars and data acquisition systems so that during this year-long test we can record exactly what happens. What messages are sent, what messages are received, what warnings occur -“ were they really valid warnings -“ all the stuff you would need to know,” Shulman explains.

Traffic lights will broadcast when the lights will change to the test vehicles via wi-fi.

“The vision of this technology is that it would be used for all surface transportation, so in the test are not only passenger cars but some commercial vehicles, delivery vehicles and buses. They’ll all speak the same language with each other.”

Extend the test out into the future and you’ll find a convergence between the V2V project and another one we’ve reported on before that also involves the UMTRI. Shulman says “There are even people who eventually want to send this information to pedestrians. You could put an app in your smartphone that would send out a message that says ‘Watch out! I’m here’ if you’re walking along the road at night.”

Susan Zielinski is the kind of person who thinks the Jetsons were so 20th century. She’s managing director of SMART, the acronym for Sustainable Mobility & Accessibility Research & Transformation. It’s another project of UMTRI and TCAUP, the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, in Ann Arbor. Zielinski sees the V2V test as a component of “the next generation of urban transportation which would connect transportation modes, services, and technologies, bringing diverse innovations together in ways that favor accessibility (meeting needs) over mobility (moving for the sake of moving), and that work significantly better for people, economies, and the planet.”

In short, people -“ the ultimate users of any transportation system whether it be feet, bus, rail or private car -“ would be just one node on a communications web. They would know, because it would tell them via an app on their smartphone, if their bus was on time -“ while the bus would know they were hurrying on their way to the bus stop. Future commuters would know if taking light rail would be better than a cab or a Zip Car -“ whatever was the best way for them to get where they were going, when they wanted to get there.

Susan Zielienski of UMTRI’s SMART.

“What we’re seeing in transportation globally and some parts of the U.S.,” says Zielinski, “is that thanks to information technology people are beginning to be able to access more choices that are more appropriate to the purpose (and hopefully more sustainable.)” There’s even more to it than that, she continues. Information technology is being seen by the transportation industry as going a long way to providing “the kinds of services people need like integrated wayfinding and fare payment and multi-modal traffic management (not just single occupancy vehicular). And as an added benefit, this forms a major pillar of a transportation industry that is evolving to include many more sectors than what is generally thought of as the transportation industry and is poised to supply the future of transportation, similar to the information revolution.”

That’s way more practical than jet-packs and flying cars.

So the V2V pilot is a way to get there and do so within the near future. Shulman says that the hub for the test is the University’s hospital campus, a huge multi-building location in the northeast of Ann Arbor where “they have delivery vehicles and buses, people that come to work and leave work at the same time.” In short, it’s a typical urban environment prone to what might be called euphemistically “unintentional vehicular interaction.”

One potential problem the V2V project might face is whether drivers might find the alert messages distracting, or that they might become so dependent on the technology that they would be less attuned to their own sense of the world around them. Shulman reassures us that “there are similar warning systems in cars today but with V2V we can do better by providing more and better information.”

As an example of that, imagine you’re driving on the interstate doing 75 and stuck in a lane behind a huge pickup. Three cars ahead a driver brakes suddenly for some reason. You can’t see it, the pickup truck driver hasn’t noticed it -“ yet the car that hit the brakes has already communicated with your car to tell it to tell you to slow down-¦ NOW!

Another situation in which V2V communications would be a huge benefit would be in the situation most of us have faced when we see an 18-wheeler approaching an intersection from our left. Our light is green and it appears that he’s turning right on red and poses no threat, so we speed up as our light changes to yellow. What we don’t see is the car hidden by the truck that is anticipating his green light and continuing to zoom along at 45 miles an hour -“ he doesn’t see us and we don’t see him. Except -“ his car tells our car what he’s up to and our car tells his that we’re here -“ and both of us practice a little defensive driving and there’s no crash.

Test vehicles will broadcast their position and other information about 1,000 feet via wi-fi.

It would work even more effectively were the traffic lights themselves a part of the communications system (as they will be in the test) and they tell all the cars approaching the intersection exactly how many seconds it will be until the light changes, the cars know how much space they need to stop at the crosswalk and whether their drivers are taking appropriate action. If that’s not the case, the drivers get a warning sound.

While this might reduce the traffic fine revenue for cities that have those dreaded “red light cameras,” it would potentially result in many fewer crashes and a possible reduction in insurance rates.

Shulman also reassures us that the data your vehicle is sending out won’t snitch on you to the local constabulary. “It’s completely anonymous, there’s no linkage to your car’s VIN or your personal information. It’s just this vehicle is going in this direction at this speed. We’ve thought about the privacy issue a lot.”

The equipment itself has also been thought about a lot. It’s been designed to use existing components that you might find in any smartphone. It has Wi-Fi transmission and reception, a GPS system and some other basic technology. Unlike many of the bundled higher-end tech applications that can add serious money to a base vehicle, the V2V boxes are designed specifically to be affordable to almost any car owner, new or used.

How long does Shulman see before there’s a broad use of the V2V technology? “Probably near the end of this decade for there to be a significant impact,” he anticipates. That will allow time for much of the existing infrastructure to be retrofitted and the transportation fleet to be equipped.

But, as he says, “We need to go from a world where nobody’s got it to a world where everybody’s got it.”