Foreshadowing the Autonomous Cars of the Future

Recent months have seen major developments in the march toward truly autonomous cars. Google has announced that it has logged almost 700,000 miles of autonomous driving, and that it has been driving many of those miles in urban environments, testing the ability of its software to detect and account for other cars, bicycles, and pedestrians. Volvo will, in 2017,launch a fleet of 100 autonomous cars in Gothenburg, Sweden, where drivers will be able to let the cars take over on thirty miles of roads selected by Volvo for the government-supported project. Volvo engineers are already testing prototypes on the roads of Gothenburg. And the University of Michigan’s Mobility Transformation Center, with support from industry players like Bosch, Econolite, Ford, General Motors, Toyota, and Xerox, will be developing a simulated urban environment for testing autonomous car technologies — with wireless networking being one of the technologies under review.

Wireless networking is also being examined for human-piloted cars. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), working in conjunction with the Department of Transportation’s Research and Innovative Technologies Administration (RITA), has announced that it intends to mandate the use of vehicle-to-vehicle, or V2V, systems in the future. The agencies have yet to announce when this will become mandatory, and have yet to release a final report on their research findings — but it seems clear that this will be an intermediate step between the human-piloted cars of today and the autonomous cars of tomorrow. 

V2V systems are based on wireless transponders in each car, which have the ability to communicate with one another about vehicle position up to ten times per second, and to alert the driver when the system senses that two vehicles are dangerously close, or are closing on each other too quickly. Other potential applications highlighted by RITA include the use of V2V communications to manage traffic flow at busy intersections; to give “do not pass” alerts to drivers based on oncoming traffic; or to use the transponders to communicate to transit operators when vehicles are engaging their stability control systems, indicating that roadway conditions are poor.

V2V research is now turning to another hot-button issue: pedestrian safety. While European pedestrian safety standards have reshaped the modern car, V2V is now being looked at as a way of preventing car-pedestrian collisions in the first place. Researchers are determining whether future generations of cell phones can be built to transmit a signal that V2V systems would detect, allowing V2V-equipped cars to alert drivers to the presence of pedestrians, bicyclists, or motorcyclists (in an application that could be referred to as V2X).   

The proposed system has some hurdles to overcome. The wireless technology proposed by NHTSA and RITA operates in the 5.9 GHz wavelength, and there is pressure on the FCC to permit other devices to operate in this wavelength, which could cause problems with interference with V2V communications.

V2V communications may ultimately represent an intermediate step on the way to autonomous cars — a way for cars to talk to each other, before they learn to drive themselves. In fact, analysts are already projecting that V2V may deliver much of the safety benefits of autonomous cars, at a fraction of the cost and well in advance of autonomous cars actually reaching the market. How well V2V delivers on this promise may have a major impact on acceptance of autonomous cars when they reach the point of being market-ready. Whether lawmakers can keep up with these developments is another question entirely.