Navigant Research Blog

Making Cars Smarter – and Safer

David Alexander — February 11, 2014

In early February, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced it will begin to promote vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication technology for light vehicles.  The announcement focused mainly on the technology helping drivers avoid crashes.  Since August 2012, the Department of Transportation has been running a safety pilot program in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where about 3,000 vehicles were deployed in the largest road test of V2V technology yet.

In its early phase, the trial has centered on gathering, interpreting, and managing data from all the vehicles driving in the vicinity.  Later, the pilot vehicles will move on to sharing that information to warn against collisions.  One of the key targets is to improve traffic safety at intersections.  Other future benefits may include traffic jam and road hazard alerts.

The hardware required for V2V systems is not very expensive and most modern vehicles are already equipped with some of the necessary sensors.  V2V systems can also be easily made available as an aftermarket retrofit so that existing vehicles can participate.  The benefits of the technology, though, will remain limited until the percentage of V2V-equipped vehicles on the road is very high.

Speed Saves

Some articles in the media are quoting NHTSA as estimating that V2V could prevent up to 80% of accidents that don’t involve drunken drivers or mechanical failure.  That could be true in an ideal scenario where 100% of vehicles are operational with V2V.  But in practice, it would only take one vehicle without the communication device to cause a serious accident.  For example, when passing on a two-lane road, the V2V system could detect if a vehicle is coming the other way – but only if the oncoming car is also equipped with a working system.

Another challenge is the wireless communication technology.  To date, the V2V testing has used the 5.9 GHz frequency band.  This band has been reserved for dedicated short-range communications, a situation that is essential for safety systems because it minimizes transmission latency.  Yet, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering opening this band to unlicensed Wi-Fi devices.  In that case, it would be difficult to guarantee that V2V would react quickly enough to prevent accidents.

NHTSA is considering requiring V2V communication equipment in all new cars.  Another big challenge will be ensuring that the technology is compatible with future developments.  Requiring original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to fit this technology is one way to kick-start the rollout of V2V, but full effectiveness will only be achieved if there are significant incentives for drivers to install the systems on existing vehicles.

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