Connected Vehicles Could Save 10,000 Lives Per Year

'Science Fiction' Could be Reality by 2013

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John Augustine is managing director of the Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office, a project of the Research and Innovative Technology Administration in the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Posted: Wednesday, September 28, 2011 4:59 pm

Imagine a car seat that vibrates when you fall asleep at the wheel, or an alarm that blasts when you're about to collide with a vehicle that's running a red light. How about a flashing dashboard alert that lets you know when you're approaching a road work zone, a passing train or a truck stopped in the road on a foggy night?

U.S. transportation authorities say these and other wonders aren't science fiction. They are likely to be features of every vehicle in America in the not-so-distant future, saving up to 10,000 lives and perhaps preventing more than 700,000 injuries per year.

"This kind of technology has the best hope of really dramatically reducing (highway deaths and injuries) on the order of seatbelts and airbags - things that really were revolutionary in terms of vehicle safety," said John Augustine, managing director of the Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office, a project of the Research and Innovative Technology Administration in the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Augustine spoke at the American Public Works Association Congress and Exposition last week in Denver. He said the ITS project has the full support of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Federal Highway Administration, and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. "All of the agencies in the DOT are part of this program, so this is not something that just the research arm is doing in the basement," he said. "They are all very vested in this. Safety is the number one goal of the department and that's why we're pursuing the vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and the vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) connected vehicle research program."

He said all that support has put the project on the fast track, and 3,000 vehicles are being equipped with the technology for a major road test and real-world implementation this year through 2013. The Federal Communications Commission has allocated a secure, short-range frequency spectrum for wireless systems that will send high-speed signals from one vehicle to others within a 300-meter range, and between vehicles and infrastructure equipped with compatible transmitters up to a kilometer away.

A decision about whether such devices will be required on all new light-duty passenger vehicles is expected by 2013, and NHTSA will make a decision on heavy-duty trucks by 2014, Augustine said. He said aftermarket devices will be available to retrofit older vehicles. While devices that alert drivers to a wide range of hazards will vary in price, Augustine said simple beacons that make a vehicle "discoverable" by intelligent transportation systems in other vehicles will be very inexpensive. In the latter case, at least one of the two vehicles in an impending collision could be warned seconds in advance - enough time to take evasive action and hopefully avoid or lessen the impact of a crash.

"The NHTSA data estimates that 82 percent of the crash scenarios not involving alcohol could be addressed by this. What that means, in layman's terms, is probably about 50 percent of all accidents could be affected. So you could turn a fatal crash into one with an injury; you could turn a serious injury into a minor injury; a minor crash, you could avoid altogether," Augustine said.

Currently, more than 32,000 Americans die each year in traffic accidents. Another 2.2 million are injured in about 5.5 million crashes, with a total cost of about $230 billion. Vehicular crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans 4 to 34 years of age. Crashes, road construction and traffic congestion also cause 4.8 billion hours of travel delays that cost Americans $115 billion and 3.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel. Since transportation contributes 28 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, travel delays are also an environmental issue, Augustine said.

He said the DOT is not currently proposing systems that would take control away from drivers - only systems that would alert drivers through various means, including buzzers, alarms, messages, lights and vibrations. Even portable devices, which could be used by pedestrians and bicycles, could make them discoverable to systems on board cars, trucks and mass transit vehicles.

Augustine said the technology - Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC) - is a "spin-off" of WiFi communications used to connect computers to the Internet wirelessly in confined areas. The difference is that DSRC is a high-security, high-speed system that allows a low-latency signal to be transmitted 10 times per second.

"We believe that with this DSRC, when you add the positioning to it from GPS, connected to the diagnostics of the vehicle ... and providing that information to other vehicles ... as well as infrastructure, you can address a high percentage of the crash scenarios not involving alcohol. That comes from our colleagues at NHTSA, who have done all the crash analysis. Their statistics lead them to believe that we can really have a major breakthrough if we can implement this connected vehicle technology."

Augustine said his department is working with eight major auto manufacturers on the pilot project, which will test a variety of safety devices on 3,000 vehicles in a concentrated area near Ann Arbor, Mich., over the next year and a half.

The systems being tested would differ from existing crash prevention technologies that are expensive, optical radar-based systems typically available only on high-end vehicles. The DSRC systems are expected to cost "from less than $100 to a little bit over $100," Augustine said. "So, this would be available for all vehicles, from the very economy lines all the way up to the luxury lines," he said, "and it would be interoperable between all vehicle classes. So, a GM could talk to a Honda, which could talk to a Ford, etc."

The V2I systems would involve imbedding sensors and wireless communication into bridges, traffic signals, stop signs, ramps, etc., allowing systems to measure and communicate traffic volume and speeds through intersections, the weather conditions and other information vital to motorists. Information from emergency and road maintenance personnel could be fed into the system to alert drivers to crashed vehicles, road construction or other hazards.

Many other applications could come from the system, Augustine said. Transit systems could communicate with people waiting at the bus stops, trains could communicate to vehicles as they approached non-gated crossings, fleets could be managed with dynamic routing guidance, traffic signals could be optimized for traffic flow and volume, tolling could be enhanced, and so on.

"This would be the wireless, connected world of the future," Augustine said. "You might wonder if this is science fiction, or is it really happening."

Augustine said if NHTSA decides not to require the technology on all new vehicles, it could decide to make it voluntary. In that case, higher safety ratings would be given to vehicles that incorporated the technology.

"But we feel pretty confident we're doing enough testing to show that it's effective and we hope to be able to show there's a positive cost benefit in the research."

He said his team is also developing policy proposals that would govern who owns the data and who is responsible for the security, etc.

"We want to get to the 2013 timeframe having addressed all the critical issues and being able to make a sound decision on this," he said.

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