Automated collision prevention: On the way or out of reach?

traffic on highway

Technology that would enable vehicles to instantly send and receive warnings about impending crashes is out of the realm of science fiction and into the real-world test stage, but creation of the massive wireless communications network required to make such a system work remains a major roadblock.

The public key network infrastructure that would safeguard communications for a national vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) collision prevention system would be unprecedented in scale and probably too expensive for the federal government to build and maintain, according to a study issued by the Government Accountability Office on Nov. 1.

The report comes as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is set to make a decision by the end of the year on whether to proceed with plans for a system that would use on-board devices to transmit and share critical safety information among vehicles on the road.

The DOT estimated that the system could reduce the 32,000 traffic deaths that occur each year on U.S. roads, although it did not provide a specific estimate of lives saved. Traffic fatalities peaked at more than 50,000 a year in the late 1960s and early '70s and have been on a fairly steady decline since. NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said in an April 5 speech to automobile dealers in New York that the V2V system would enable vehicles to automatically send messages and receive warnings about impending crashes so drivers could take evasive action — avoiding or mitigating 80 percent of vehicle crash scenarios involving unimpaired drivers.

The Department of Transportation is working with automakers and other stakeholders to develop devices and related infrastructure to support the capabilities.

A test of the technology at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, which had been set for completion in August 2013, was extended until February 2014 by the DOT's Research and Innovative Technology Administration. In that pilot, vehicles send electronic data messages, receive messages from other equipped vehicles, and translate the data into a warning to the driver during specific hazardous traffic scenarios, like collisions at blind intersections, drivers changing lanes into another driver's blind spot, or an impending rear-end collision with vehicles stopped ahead.

Additional tests, said NHTSA, will allow further examination of the technology on motorcycles and Vehicle to Infrastructure (V2I) applications, and help inform another NHTSA decision in 2014 on whether to use V2V in heavy vehicles. The agency said the August extension won't affect the timing of NHTSA's decision for light vehicles, which is slated for later this year.

GAO said the V2V system is an ambitious program with tremendous potential, but noted several potential problems.

One of the biggest: the underlying wireless system that would allow on-board devices to communicate with one another while on the road. The network could use unlicensed spectrum at 5.9 GHz that the Federal Communications Commission wants set-aside for use of dedicated short-range communications technologies. The bandwidth, said GAO, would support a network that would ensure security of inter-vehicular transmissions. The system would detect, report and revoke the credentials of vehicles found to be sharing inaccurate information. The GAO also noted that cellular and other wireless technologies have also been suggested as networking options. A NHTSA official told FCW that the agency is considering various options for provision of a security management system to support V2V communications, which will be outlined when it makes its V2V decision public.

But a dozen of the 21 experts GAO spoke to for its study said technical development of the communications system posed a "great" or "very great" challenge for the deployment of V2V technologies.

One expert told investigators that "a public key infrastructure system the size of the one needed to support the nationwide deployment of V2V technologies has never been developed before; the sheer magnitude of the system will pose challenges to its development."

GAO said the technical framework for a V2V communications security system could be done three ways: a federal model; a public/private model; or a privatized model. The federal model was unlikely because, GAO said, the government "does not have sufficient resources" to fund it. A joint public/private partnership, although it could garner resources, might not have legal authority to address liability and privacy issues. A privatized model could work, said GAO, depending on what entity builds and owns the network.

A peripheral issue could also be whether such a communications network would be considered critical infrastructure deemed worthy of beefed-up security to prevent outside tampering. Telecommunications networks, gas and oil pipeline and electrical power facilities are all considered critical infrastructure and are protected by increasingly complex security measures.

NHTSA said the question of whether the V2V communications network would be considered critical infrastructure was "premature at this point." It said the agency has to first decide how it would proceed on V2V overall before making the determination.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

The Fed 100

Save the date for 28th annual Federal 100 Awards Gala.


  • computer network

    How Einstein changes the way government does business

    The Department of Commerce is revising its confidentiality agreement for statistical data survey respondents to reflect the fact that the Department of Homeland Security could see some of that data if it is captured by the Einstein system.

  • Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Army photo by Monica King. Jan. 26, 2017.

    Mattis mulls consolidation in IT, cyber

    In a Feb. 17 memo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told senior leadership to establish teams to look for duplication across the armed services in business operations, including in IT and cybersecurity.

  • Image from

    DHS vague on rules for election aid, say states

    State election officials had more questions than answers after a Department of Homeland Security presentation on the designation of election systems as critical U.S. infrastructure.

  • Org Chart Stock Art - Shutterstock

    How the hiring freeze targets millennials

    The government desperately needs younger talent to replace an aging workforce, and experts say that a freeze on hiring doesn't help.

  • Shutterstock image: healthcare digital interface.

    VA moves ahead with homegrown scheduling IT

    The Department of Veterans Affairs will test an internally developed scheduling module at primary care sites nationwide to see if it's ready to service the entire agency.

  • Shutterstock images (honglouwawa & 0beron): Bitcoin image overlay replaced with a dollar sign on a hardware circuit.

    MGT Act poised for a comeback

    After missing in the last Congress, drafters of a bill to encourage cloud adoption are looking for a new plan.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group