Safety technologies compete for road room
Cars that wirelessly talk to each other are finally ready for the road, creating the potential to dramatically reduce traffic deaths, improve the safety of self-driving cars and someday maybe even help solve traffic jams, automakers and government officials in the United States say.
But there's a big catch. The cable television and high-tech industries want to take away a large share of the radio airwaves the government dedicated for transportation in 1999 and use it instead for superfast Wi-Fi service. Auto industry officials are fighting to hang on to as much of the spectrum as they can, saying, they expect they will ultimately need all of it for the new vehicle-to-vehicle communications or V2V.
The government and the auto industry have spent more than a decade and US$1 billion researching and testing V2V technology. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is expected to propose as early as next month that new cars and trucks come equipped with it. General Motors isn't waiting for the proposal, saying it will include V2V in Cadillac CTS sedans before the end of the year.
"We're losing 35,000 people every year (to traffic crashes)," said Harry Lightsey, a General Motors lobbyist. "This technology has the power to dramatically reduce that.
To me, the ability of somebody to download movies or search the Internet or whatever should be secondary to that."
The fight pits two government agencies against each other the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates spectrum and sympathises with wireless proponents, and the NHTSA, which regulates auto safety and has long made V2V a top priority. The White House, which is currently reviewing the NHTSA's proposal to require the technology in new cars, is caught between two of its goals : greater auto safety and faster wireless service.
With V2V, cars and trucks wirelessly transmit their locations, speed, direction, and other information 10 times per second. That lets cars detect when another vehicle is about to run a red light, is braking hard, or is coming around a blind turn in time for the driver (or, in the case of self-driving cars, for the vehicle itself) to take action to prevent a crash.
V2V's range is up to about 1,000 yards in all directions, even when sight is blocked by buildings or other obstacles. That gives the technology the advantage of being able to detect a potential collision before the driver can see the threat, unlike the sensors and cameras of self-driving cars that sense what's immediately around the vehicle.
In May a Tesla Model S sedan in "autopilot" mode crashed into the side of a tractor-trailer that was making a left turn, killing the Tesla driver and drawing attention to the limitations of self-driving technology. The accident is still under investigation, but auto industry experts say that if the two vehicles had been equipped with V2V it is likely that the crash would have been avoided.
The government estimates that V2V could eventually prevent or mitigate more than 80 per cent of collisions that don't involve a driver impaired by drugs or alcohol.
Ultimately, self-driving cars also equipped with V2V may be the answer to traffic congestion because they will be able to synchronise their movements, industry officials say.
Those who want more of the airwaves for Wi-Fi say that with self-driving cars on the horizon to eliminate human errors, the safety benefits of V2V are less important. They point out that it could be more than 20 years before the full benefits of V2V are realised because it takes decades for the automotive fleet to be completely replaced.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel derided V2V as a turn-of-the-century technology at a forum on the matter earlier this year. "For 15 years, we haven't substantially deployed a thing in this band with respect to auto safety," she said, calling for more "efficient" use of the spectrum.