The World Wants Cars to Talk, But Can’t Agree on a Language

Image courtesy of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Image courtesy of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

The U.S. Department of Transportation thinks cars should learn to talk to each other before they can drive themselves. Earlier this month it issued a proposed rule announcement requiring vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication technology in all light-duty vehicles sold in the U.S. to allow the development of collision-avoidance applications that could prevent hundreds of thousands of accidents every year.

This announcement was not unexpected, as the U.S. Congress reserved a chunk of the available radio spectrum specifically for V2V communication back in 1999. The University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute has been running extensive tests on cars with V2V and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications in Ann Arbor’s 32-acre simulated Mcity since early 2015, with Ford, GM, and Toyota, among others, participating in the testing. The University of Michigan and the Michigan Department of Transportation raised about $10 million to open the facility and recently announced that a fully autonomous shuttle bus built by the French company NAVYA will offer self-guided tours of Mcity. We’re not sure touring a simulated city in a self-driving bus will offer “Fast & Furious” levels of excitement, but we look forward to seeing the results of Mcity’s testing on U.S. roads.

The crash-avoidance technologies V2V communication will allow are important steps on the road to self-driving cars, but whether you like the idea of autonomous cars or not, the potential value of V2V communication is huge. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that full implementation of V2V and V2I communications could prevent or reduce the severity of up to 80% of non-impaired crashes and reduce the average number of crashes, injuries, and fatalities by 50% annually.

With the potential savings of so many lives and dollars arguing strongly in favor of cars talking, no one should be surprised or unhappy to have that technology required in new cars. In fact, the first two cars with V2V and V2I communications will hit the market in 2017. Cadillac calls its 2017 CTS the first production vehicle featuring V2V communications, although Mercedes-Benz would likely contest that claim, as the 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class also includes V2V communications. Select versions of Audi’s 2017 Q7, A4, and A4 allroad sold in the U.S. will use V2I communication in a well-publicized traffic-light information system, which will give drivers a countdown telling them when enabled traffic lights will change from red to green. And other parts of the world want cars to talk, too. Volvo recently added V2V and V2I capabilities to its S90, V90, and XC90 vehicles in Europe, and the Toyota Prius and Crown as well as the Lexus RX are available with V2V capabilities in Japan.

As we’ve noted, V2V and V2I communications have huge potential and are getting researched extensively here in the U.S. and abroad, but the proposed rule change goes farther than requiring communication capability. It also proposes requiring V2V devices to “speak the same language,” and this is where the issue gets more technical and divisive. The Department of Transportation and NHTSA have so far insisted that V2V and V2I communications use DSRC (dedicated short-range communications), and GM likes that idea. But automakers in Europe and China are dedicating lots of time and money to developing 5G technologies and have formed the 5G Automotive Association, whose membership includes Ford, not to mention Audi, BMW, and Daimler. They say the DOT’s rule change allows for a multi-year rollout, so DSRC could get outdated by 5G cellular before the older system even makes it into all U.S. cars.

DSRC technology is available and relatively proven, and automakers have already invested substantial sums on research and development. But cellular communications will continue to evolve and grow with support from many of the world’s biggest businesses, and 5G could easily end up becoming a better system over time. Unfortunately, history teaches us that collisions involving both business and politics tend to get messy, and American politics are on the brink of a huge change. We just hope the participants in the ongoing debate between DSRC and 5G will recognize that letting cars talk to each other will save lives, money, and time every year. Isn’t that more important than arguing about which country or company gets to pick the language they use?

Comments on the DOT’s proposed new rule can be submitted on this page, which also includes and links to more detailed information on V2V communication and DSRC.

Do you think cars should communicate with each other and with infrastructure? Should they use DSRC or 5G cellular communications?

-Steve Halloran

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