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

Technology that would enable vehicles to avoid impending crashes has moved 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.

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.

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