The Connected Car
Emerging auto technology has your back—and your front and your steering wheel.
Arthur C. Clarke once stated, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That could not be truer than in the automotive industry, from the inception of mass-produced cars to the revolutionary changes on the horizon. The Ford Model T certainly seemed magical as it supplanted the horse and carriage in the 1920s. However, what comes next—eliminating human input from the driving equation—will transcend any sleight of hand. Of course, there are intermediate steps before exiling the driver to the back seat.
The Future Is Almost Now
The modern car is swiftly evolving from a purely mechanical device into a wholly new species of vehicle. Google’s on-road experiments with driverless cars, coupled with automaker research and testing of self-driving cars, point to a possible future of autonomous vehicles.
In the interim, transportation researchers, regulators, and car manufacturers are exploring technologies that can be implemented more readily. These approaches keep a human operator at the steering wheel—albeit a driver empowered with enhanced situational awareness. On the horizon are crash-prevention and traffic-reducing measures enabled by dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) and satellite links (GPS) called vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) connected technology. When in place, V2V and V2I will alert drivers of imminent danger from others on the roadway and real-time hazards along their routes of travel.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), these new technologies can provide the means to reduce crashes, improve traffic flow, and ameliorate the environmental impacts of idling vehicles. Regulators forecast that V2V and V2I have the potential to address 81 percent of all unimpaired driver-related crashes. NHTSA’s Office of Applied Vehicle Safety Research estimates that as many as 33,000 fatalities could be avoided and as much as three billion gallons of fuel could be saved when these technologies are fully integrated into the national vehicle fleet.
Collaborating with a consortium of eight automakers and the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, the Department of Transportation (DOT) is exploring the feasibility of implementing connected-vehicle technology in an 18-month pilot program of 3,000 specially outfitted cars in Ann Arbor, Mich. By testing the technologies in a real-world scenario, manufacturers are able to evaluate the feasibility of deploying V2V throughout their auto lines. The evaluation is critical because new-car buyers would shoulder the costs of these crash-prevention measures.
A Closer Look at V2V and V2I
All told, V2V could provide a cost-effective alternative to the array of sensors, cameras, and radar detectors now available as options in luxury cars. V2V crash-prevention systems will be integrated into connected cars rather than purchased separately.
Upon activation, a V2V-enabled car will broadcast a “Here I am!” data message detailing its location and speed to other connected vehicles. The technology will amplify the car’s situational awareness by tapping into 360-degree views of other similarly equipped vehicles in its proximity. Traveling solo, the car can receive alerts of imminent roadway danger in enough time for the driver to react, but on a congested roadway with other connected vehicles, the car’s driver gains the collected intelligence of vehicles surrounding its travel path. Adding a systemic real-time overview of the roadways through V2I can identify potential issues like a traffic slowdown obscured by a curved road or a stalled vehicle overlapping the shoulder.
Working in concert, V2V and V2I are distinct improvements on the random deployment of crash-prevention technologies that exist in a national fleet that exceeds 300 million vehicles. To optimize the technology, all vehicles will need to be connected to each other and to the traffic-control infrastructure. And for those vested in an autonomous-vehicle future, having V2V and V2I up and functional would smooth the way for driverless cars.
Obstacles to Deployment
The challenge for implementation is that these complicated systems require much more development, testing, and refinement. Guiding a single car into a parallel parking spot at three miles per hour is sufficiently challenging for radar-guided parking software. Imagine the complexity of connected technologies for thousands upon thousands of cars traveling at posted speed limits through complicated roadway systems.
Addressing the human factors related to usage is among the first steps. At present, there are at least six crash scenarios being tested by the DOT program (brake lights, blind spots, lane change, forward collision, do not pass, and left-turn assist), and each delivers distinct signals to the driver in ascending levels of urgency: a visible alert (flashing lights), a tonal warning (sound or voice), and a sensory message (vibrating seat or steering wheel). The goal is to assist the vehicle’s operator without burdening the driving task with additional distractions.
Other serious challenges include harmonizing the connected-vehicle technologies among manufacturers, standards organizations, and regulators; Wi-Fi communications with other users (pedestrians, cyclists, mass transit, and surface transportation); infrastructure and resources; and system security, among others.
Future Enhanced GPS and Vehicle Connectivity
In V2V and V2I scenarios, the driver retains vehicle control, but their GPS linkages open the possibility of external intervention. That prospect is a mixed blessing.
Stark reminders of its potential benefits are the fatal train crash in Spain and the Asiana Airlines runway mishap at San Francisco International Airport—where GPS-aided inputs could have averted both accidents. Current GPS usage in vehicles typically involves mapping services, although the advent of real-time traffic alerts is stepping up the utility of these navigation systems to match smartphones with the delivery of real-time data. For now, these are essentially read-only applications, even for smartphones. None carry the code to instruct vehicle behavior—although automatic crash response, car unlocking, remote starts, and a range of related services are available via purchased apps or automaker programs like OnStar’s tiered subscriptions.
Such limitations on GPS usage are waning, and applications for everyday driving are in the offing. For example, V2V’s “Here I am!” message could reach a wider range of roadway users, like smartphone-carrying bicyclists and pedestrians. Consider a distracted pedestrian entering an intersection without noticing an oncoming car. With V2V, the vehicle can alert its driver and the pedestrian’s GPS-enabled phone simultaneously. And like the car driver, the pedestrian also could receive an audible warning of impending danger.
Taking things further, the vehicle’s systems could evaluate other GPS inputs (adjacent vehicles and maneuvering space) and avoid an accident by taking control of the car’s steering and braking functions. Smartphone connectivity is an example of a V-2-GPS option that has potential for surpassing V2V/V2I.
Less appealing are the nightmarish possibilities of hackers loading bad data in real time into V2V-enabled cars or criminals tracking potential victims via GPS. Of course, these scenarios are more movie-thriller fare, but system security threats are dynamic and what appears ludicrous one day is reality the next.
On the more plausible end, consider law enforcement surveillance enabled through V2V/V2I and the prospect of the highway patrol issuing traffic tickets instantly for moving violations. Thus, in an era when technological know-how pushes the limits of government oversight and impinges on personal privacy, the legal implications of vehicle connectivity must be addressed before the technology emerges from the testing phase.
Improved Risk Models
Even while researchers focus on enhancing driving safety through connected technology, insurance companies are looking in the same direction to improve risk modeling for premium pricing. The advent of usage-based insurance (UBI) shifts the pricing model from history-based determinants to monitored driver behavior patterns. Also known as “pay as you drive” (PAYD), lower premiums coupled with no-claims bonus payments may no longer be given only to the safest drivers but also to those whose driving patterns do not trip built-in safety systems or exceed predetermined thresholds for hard braking, higher-risk time usage, or miles driven.
Systems currently available, like Progressive’s Snapshot, deliver up-to-the-minute reports on driver behavior that can be accessed by the car owner as well as the insurer. The lure of lower premiums gained via monitored real-time safe driving is compelling, but for privacy advocates, the scrutiny represents intrusion into personal space. Similarly, by tapping into a vehicle’s data stream via GPS—a not-so-improbable scenario as vehicle connectivity evolves—insurance companies could expand UBI/PAYD by providing discounts to customers with little-or-no V2V alerts recorded. Here again is another possibility to stir up fears of privacy erosion.
The Cost of Saving Lives, Time, and Fuel
Devising more and better ways to accomplish routine tasks is a heady pursuit. Add dazzling technological feats to the mix, and it is difficult not to be seduced by high-tech advances. That said, it behooves society to look critically at every development and evaluate its suitability, costs, and consequences and, even more, to explore potential unintended consequences based on the shared experience of nearly 50 years of paradigm-shifting technologies. Yes, V2V and V2I connectivity can reduce mortality and morbidity, lessen the environmental impact of congestion while speeding traffic flow, and lay the groundwork for a future of autonomous vehicles—but at what cost?
Even that basic question of who is at fault in an accident, a concern that dogs insurers and lawyers alike, can get murky in a connected-driving environment. Finding answers can involve automakers, manufacturers, insurers, and lawyers, and result in a journey through mass tort litigation. Even the mildest fender-bender could trigger legal hoopla. Picture a V2V-enabled car driver trying to figure out which alert or warning to prioritize when multiple threats arise in a fluid and dangerous situation. Will car companies be at fault if the software algorithms apply erroneous commands for a given emergency? Will drivers grow wary of system interventions and ask, “Oh no, what did I do wrong this time?” Will drivers expect their vehicles to prevent every accident under all circumstances, even the most minor? Identifying responsible parties was much easier when the analysis started with the person at the steering wheel of a mechanical vehicle.
Another ambiguous consequence of the current trends in automotive evolution is increased attention from an expansive, and sometimes conflicting, array of parties who can potentially gain access to vehicle data streams and even control a car’s progress on the roadways.
George Orwell coined the term “Big Brother” in his novel 1984 to describe a society living under mass government surveillance. The unintended consequence of today’s technologies may be pushing us to an Orwellian future of technology-facilitated scrutiny and input by a band of Big Brothers through the family car.
In the 1920s, pundits of Ford’s Model T criticized the prevalence of congested and unpaved roads, fuel scarcity, and growing accident numbers. Pundits in 2020 likely will criticize the potential for unauthorized access to driverless-vehicle functions as well as the “nanny state” created by the expanded capacity for surveillance and outside intervention by automakers and the government. The early critics did not foresee the development of interstate roadways, comprehensive infrastructure support, and industry/government-mandated safety improvements. Our 2020 pundits likely will be pleasantly surprised to see vastly improved driving safety, reduced accidents and injury, improved fuel economy, and outstanding peace of mind afforded by “magical” vehicle technology.