Feds want cars to talk to each other

NTSB promotes tech that could let cars know the velocity of nearby vehicles and react to sudden changes

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is calling for motor vehicles to be equipped with "connected technology," machine-to-machine communications tools that could help drivers avoid accidents.

The NTSB issued the call in a report filed after an investigation into a collision between a Mack truck and a school bus at an intersection in New Jersey last year.

The accident occurred on February 16, 2012, when a Mack truck struck the left rear of a bus carrying 25 students. One student was killed in the crash and and five others were seriously injured. The truck driver was not injured.

Among its conclusions, the NTSB found that connected vehicle technology could have provided active warnings to the school bus driver of an approaching truck and possibly prevented the crash.

"Effective countermeasures are needed to assist in preventing intersection crashes," the NTSB stated in its report on the crash.

"For example, systems such as connected vehicle technology could have provided an active warning to the school bus driver of the approaching truck as he began to cross the intersection. Although the bus driver was adamant in his post crash interview that he had pulled forward sufficiently to see clearly in both directions, he failed to see the oncoming truck and proceeded into its path," the NTSB said.

Researchers are currently developing machine-to-machine (M2M) communication technology that would allow the exchange of data between vehicles, allowing each to know what's going on around them.

A car, for instance, could "see" the velocity of nearby vehicles and react when they turn or brake suddenly. Using computer algorithms and predictive models, the car could measure the skills of nearby drivers -- and ensure you're safe from their bad moves -- and predict where other vehicles are going.

"We're even imagining that in the future cars would be able to ask other cars, 'Hey, can I cut into your lane?' Then the other car would let you in," said Jennifer Healey, a research scientist with Intel.

Intel is working with National Taiwan University on M2M connectivity between vehicles as a way to make roads more predictable and safe.

"Car accidents are the leading cause of death for people [age] 16 to 19 in the United States. And 75% of these accidents have nothing to do with drugs or alcohol," said Healey, who delivered a TED Talk on the subject in March.

The NTSB's animated reenactment of the school bus collision in New Jersey.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM), an industry trade group working with the NTSB on connected vehicle technology research, has thrown its support behind the creation of a radio spectrum to be used for vehicle-to-vehicle communication.

Earlier this year, the AAM joined The Intelligent Transportation Society of America and major automakers in urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to protect the 5.9 GHz band of spectrum set aside for connected vehicle technology.

The groups have stated the technology "is expected to save thousands of lives each year -- from potentially harmful interference that could result from allowing unlicensed Wi-Fi-based devices to operate in the band."

In response to a Computerworld request for comment, the AAM said with connected vehicle technology changing so fast, "the best thing the government can do is create the right framework that encourages long-range innovation. The government is still determining what that should be."

A pilot of the technology in Ann Arbor, Mich. by the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA) is drawing to a close, it said, and the research will be analyzed for months.

"NHTSA will need to look at the interaction of cars talking to each other, as well as cars talking to the infrastructure. The promise for enhanced safety has all of us watching this project," the AAM stated. "NHTSA will announce its intentions soon, and whatever form that takes, we seek a pathway that will allow creative minds to respond. But even before that, we are urging government to be very vocal in their support of preserving the 5.9 Ghz spectrum for connected cars so that we dont put the cart before the horse and spur connected cars forward and then find there is not sufficient spectrum.

A study by the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) showed that connected vehicle technology "could help prevent the majority of types of crashes that typically occur in the real world, such as crashes at intersections or while changing lanes."

The NTIA's conclusions also revealed some reservations around implementing the technology.

"Further analysis is required to determine whether and how the identified risk factors can be mitigated,: the report said. "While the state-of-the-art of existing and proposed spectrum sharing technologies is advancing at a rapid pace, NTIA recognizes ... the potential risks of introducing a substantial number of new, unlicensed devices into them without proper safeguards."

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian, or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His email address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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