Oct. 3, 2012

The transportation management and engineering profession has been on the sidelines of creating connected vehicles, but will be impacted by connected-vehicle technologies in the not too distant future; in fact many believe that 2013 will be the breakout year in terms of professional, political and public awareness of what they call the connected vehicle ecosystem (CVE).


The transportation management and engineering profession has been on the sidelines of creating connected vehicles, but will be impacted by connected-vehicle technologies in the not too distant future; in fact many believe that 2013 will be the breakout year in terms of professional, political and public awareness of what they call the connected vehicle ecosystem (CVE).

2013 is when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) plans to evaluate the Federal Highway Administration Safety Pilot research and determine the impact of connected vehicles on highway safety, the need for an ongoing federal role and the need for regulations to support safety applications.

The following are the major stakeholders in the CVE:

  • Consumers of electronics and vehicles;
  • Automobile manufacturers and their trade associations;
  • The U.S. federal government (and governments of other nations);
  • Technology corporations (including consumer electronics and automotive aftermarket suppliers);
  • State and provincial governments;
  • Insurance companies; and
  • Academic and research entities.

Season to taste

There is no universally accepted definition of “connected vehicle.” Each stakeholder has a definition that fits with their own perspective. To many automotive manufacturers, “connected vehicle” implies that the car’s driver can establish a browser-based Internet connection with an onboard display.

This is not a useful definition to the transportation manager or engineer. Our perspective is different. As a group we are focused on safety and operational efficiency. The “infotainment” aspects are almost irrelevant to us, except that there is a detrimental safety impact to systems that distract drivers from the task of safely operating the vehicle. Infotainment may, however, be driving the technical advances, such as the ability for the car to “synchup” to a personal digital assistant (PDA), for example an iPhone or Droid device.

I would define connected vehicles as follows:

“A connected vehicle has an independent onboard wireless capability to establish a two-way data linkage between a system onboard and another system not onboard, for the purpose of transferring information in the contexts of V2V, V2I or V2X.”

You are likely familiar with vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to infrastructure (V2I). The “V2X” stands for “vehicle to other,” an acronym I copied from a presentation I saw by Luca Delgrossi of U.S. Mercedes-Benz Research. V2X includes cloud-based computing, but also implies that we just don’t know all potential applications today and that probably the most useful applications will not become evident until the technologies mature. Perhaps the most important thing to the transportation manager is the potential for making a real-time connection between the vehicles using the roads and the systems we operate to manage road usage. The possibilities are rich with promise.

In the technical sense, connected-vehicle technologies include autonomous (i.e., driverless) vehicles and nonautonomous vehicles. Although they have not yet found their way to our interstate highways, autonomous ground vehicles do exist.

In the most practical sense, transportation managers and engineers will be primarily concerned with nonautonomous ground-connected vehicles, and there are varieties of short-term applications on the near horizon that will impact how we do our jobs.

The U.S. connected-vehicle ecosystem in 2012

What political and market forces are pushing the CVE? The U.S. government is the biggest single player, motivated by altruistic purposes of improving highway safety and bureaucratic intent to develop public policy (including open standards). The U.S. DOT is working with academia and many private-sector participants to conduct fundamental safety research. Based on that research, the U.S. DOT will likely attempt to regulate the noncommercial safety aspects of what is shaping up to be a major change in surface transportation.

Collision course

In the U.S. there is a huge disconnect between the public and private sector on connected vehicles. This disconnect is not technical in nature; the disconnect is a chasm between those who believe the connected vehicle is a rolling platform for Internet-based applications and those who believe the connected vehicle fulfills societal goals of safety and efficiency on the highway. There is no hostility in this disagreement—at least not yet—as both sides are laboring under the belief that the connected vehicle will serve both masters.

 The government and private-sector motives are different enough to keep them on a collision course. Every wolf at the CVE picnic has been dressed as a sheep, but in 2012 a few fangs may flash if the government safety research already under way points to the need for standards and regulation. In today’s strained economy, there are no true sheep at the picnic. The U.S. DOT might go to Congress armed with enough ammunition to require vehicles to be connected to the infrastructure at least and possibly to each other.

The U.S. DOT’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) research is headed to the conclusion that connections to in-trip vehicles must be made to serve the basic purpose of providing safer roadways. The U.S. DOT would not likely advocate a federal law for managing driver behavior, but they certainly can and have in the past mandated OEMs to install safety systems in new vehicles. Sparks could fly if the automotive lobby charges up Capitol Hill to oppose the added cost and irritation of complying with this century’s equivalent of the mandatory seat belt.

The consumer/voter is the true master, and in spite of a corporate desire to create another big electronics market, the consumer has been somewhat ambivalent about buying embedded technology. How often does the consumer opt for technology because it happens to be bundled in the only vehicle on the lot that has the other features the consumer wants? How many people who have purchased in-vehicle navigation systems in their new SUV have done so only because it also has a rear-screen TV for the kids? They bought a car with an antiquated navigation system that they are skeptical about needing or using, especially when they already have inexpensive navigation apps on their cell phones.

 The public sector is concerned with safety in terms of ergonomic factors—chiefly driver distraction—and the private sector is concerned with safety in terms of self-protection from legal liability for crashes. The private sector knows there is legal safety in numbers, meaning that the more automobile manufacturers that provide the driver with unrestricted Internet access, the less chance of legal precedents establishing OEM liability for a distraction event.

 In a report by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), which reviewed data for all 50 states and the District of Columbia, fatal accidents involving 16- and 17-year-old drivers increased 11% for the first six months of 2011, ending an eight-year period of decline in deaths of teen drivers. The likely culprit? Texting while driving and more teens carrying PDAs. The increase in teen deaths is in contrast with data from the NHTSA, which has released an estimate that total motor vehicle deaths decreased 1% during the same period.

Pushing vs. pulling

The reality of the connected-vehicle market is that we have 350 million people in the U.S. and 250 million registered vehicles. That’s a big ship to steer, but it can be incredibly agile when presented with new technology. The vehicle connections that people may choose voluntarily are those that promise cost savings, convenience and delay reduction. E-ZPass is perhaps the best example of people opting for a connected vehicle—to save money on tolls and delay at toll plazas. The handful of states moving forward with studies of vehicle-miles-traveled fees and taxes are embracing the concept of people “opting in” to satellite-based position tracking as an alternative to fuel taxes or tolling schemes imposed by odometer reading or queries to the vehicle’s onboard diagnostic unit.

Vehicle connections that consumers may resist are those that communicate individual vehicle identity and position. Consumers that do opt for GPS applications are putting themselves and others on the slippery slope of giving up privacy to save money.

System at the core

The U.S. federal government is the most active public stakeholder at this time—focusing entirely on structured and scientific research related to the connected-vehicle ecosystem. RITA is the lead agency in connected vehicles; they have developed a comprehensive research program focusing on the following areas:

  • Connected-vehicle technology;
  • Harmonization of international standards and architecture around the vehicle platform;
  • Human factors research;
  • Systems engineering;
  • Connected-vehicle certification;
  • Connected-vehicle test bed;
  • Connected-vehicle applications;
  • Vehicle-to-vehicle communications for safety;
  • Vehicle-to-infrastructure communications for safety;
  • Real-time data capture and management;
  • Dynamic mobility applications;
  • Applications for the environment: real-time information synthesis (AERIS);
  • Road-weather applications for connected vehicles;
  • Connected-vehicle technology policy and institutional issues; and
  • Use of dedicated short range communications (DSRC).

RITA has published a concept of operations for the connected-vehicles program in an attempt to link user needs identified by stakeholders with system requirements. The concept of operations defines a “core system” that interacts with various types of users including field users, mobile users, operators, external support systems, center users and other cores.

Inclusion of seat belts in vehicles manufactured or sold in the U.S. became mandatory by a federal law that took effect on Jan. 1, 1968. The law did not require people to use seat belts. Seat belts became mandatory for New York state drivers in 1984, and since then all states have passed mandatory seat belt use laws except New Hampshire, the “Live Free or Die” state.

The potentially most important federal research effort under way is the Connected Vehicle Safety Pilot, which consists of Safety Pilot Drive Clinics and a Safety Pilot Model Deployment. The clinics have been used to measure driver reaction to different types and presentation of safety warnings and messages generated by the vehicle they are driving. The Safety Pilot Model Deployment will take this input and deploy between 2,000 and 3,000 vehicles in a geographically constrained area in Michigan to create a vehicle mix with a significant density of equipped vehicles. These studies are under way and likely to be concluded prior to the 2013 NHTSA “decision point” on connected-vehicle technologies.

The known benefits of connected vehicles

The V2I aspect of the CVE is clearly the most beneficial to the transportation engineer, and yet it is the least developed and least well capitalized dimension of the program. The typical consumer is affected by traffic delays, and many lives are changed and ended by crashes. Unfortunately, the typical consumer is not aware of the difference in quality of life and property value offered by traffic-management systems.

Operational safety: The connected vehicle will receive and process real-time data that will enable the driver—and driver-assist technologies—to avoid potential pitfalls, including collisions with fixed objects or other vehicles.

Safety assessment and research: Safety evaluation based on crash data is one of the slowest engineering processes we endure. Crash data from police records often takes years to become usable. The data we have is always after the fact and does not always point to a clear causal picture. With connected vehicles we are likely to have more immediate and higher quality data on both crashes and “near misses.”

Reduction of roadway instrumentation: Just like the toll-tag transponder is gradually replacing the tollbooth around the world, connected-vehicle technology will eventually reduce roadside equipment to data collection/transmission points, which also will disappear over time. This will take a long time and will be marked by many years of dual and redundant displays inside and outside the vehicle.

Safe proliferation of autonomous vehicles: The driverless vehicle is here to stay: As of this writing, the states of California, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Florida and Arizona have all introduced legislative bills to follow Nevada’s driverless-vehicle laws. Based on a safety record including more than 20,000 miles of operation of the Google driverless cars in southern California, Nevada DMV licensed the first driverless vehicle in May 2012. Of course, the legislators will initially completely miss the boat in terms of requiring any data sharing of autonomous vehicles and fail to realize that a driverless vehicle does not need privacy.

Credentials and pricing: Electronic credentialing, insurance and road-user pricing are all facilitated by vehicle connectivity. Never waiting in line again at the DMV, only paying for insurance when you are actually driving and paying a fee for the miles you drive on public roads (throw away your transponder) instead of a tax on fuel are all near-horizon benefits.

Convergence: Separation of electronic applications over multiple platforms is the scourge of modern existence. When a person’s car becomes a rolling Internet hub, seamless convergence of desirable applications becomes possible. With cars lasting longer than electronics, watch for a trend toward modular replaceable technology platforms in vehicles.

In order for these benefits to be realized, the federal government needs to mandate that all new vehicles must have the capability to send and receive basic public-safety data . . . and then get out of the way. Chances are, they won’t do either. Technology proliferation is a simple formula: Replace what consumers already like with something a little better and cheaper. People already like cars, computers and connectivity. We just need to let the convergence occur and not completely miss the opportunities to latch onto the potential benefits to transportation managers and engineers.

About The Author:

Baxter is chief engineer of transportation operations, CH2MHill, Denver. He can be reached at [email protected].

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