Cars that talk to each other are coming soon, and could save thousands of lives

ford panasonic v2x car communication qualcomm header
Qualcomm

Panasonic’s Network Operations Center in Denver looks ripped straight from the pages of a Tom Clancy novel: Rows of computer workstations encircled by monitors, a wall of high-definition TVs, plush rolling chairs, call-center headsets, and urgently blinking LEDs, all soaked in surreal blue light.

But they’re not tracking Soviet spies in here. Instead, the kind of guys who wear shirts patterned like graph paper are watching four colorful dots creep their way around the grid of a city map, like sedated Pac-Man ghosts. Each dot represents a real car, some of the first in the world that will talk to each other, to traffic lights, to pedestrians, and yes, even to the government.

Cars that talk to one another, and the world around them, are almost here.

The industry calls it V2X communication — vehicle-to-anything. Today, there are four dots, but that number will become hundreds, thousands, and millions, as future cars roll off factory lines with V2X built right in.

After more than a decade of engineering challenges, industry infighting, and regulatory red tape, cars that talk to one another, and the world around them, are almost here. They’ll alert one another to road conditions, tell you when the traffic signal will change, and even warn you not to pull out of that blind intersection, because they can see the oncoming traffic you can’t.

Before they learn to drive themselves, cars are going to get a lot chattier.

All seeing, all hearing

Panasonic might be better known for plasma screens and nose-hair trimmers than smart cities, but in Japan, the company built an entire techie town atop a former factory in Fujisawa, and established itself as a leader in the industry. Now it’s carrying that expertise to Denver by spearheading a massive smart-city initiative called CityNow. While it will eventually encompass everything from a neighborhood studded with solar cells, free Wi-Fi, and pollution sensors, Panasonic is also working with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to place Denver at the forefront of V2X tech.

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Chris Armstrong, director of smart mobility for Panasonic, points to the map on the TVs behind him. “Behind each of those blue and purple dots, that’s a simple visualization of the data that we’re consuming from every single one of those vehicles,” he explains. “Ten times per second, those vehicles are generating and sharing and broadcasting data: the steering wheel angle, the accelerator status, the windshield wipers status, the airbag status, the traction-control system status.”

“Ten times per second, those vehicles are generating and sharing and broadcasting data.”

Receivers on light poles in the street pick up the signals and relay them back to the CDOT operations center via fiber. That’s how we’re watching them move in real time without sending any data through cell carriers like Verizon. But the cars can also talk directly to one another, like drivers flashing headlights at one another in passing.

As we watch, the unexpected happens: One of the cars loses control and skids off the road. Sort of.

The driver really just punched a button to trigger the airbag sensor and fake the crash, but the results are no less impressive: A nearby CDOT camera mounted on a light pole snaps around to refocus on the scene of the “accident” in just seconds. A screen inside the command center cuts to a live feed of the scene. Operators can dispatch emergency services to the exact location with the press of checkbox. Alerts pop up on the screens of the three other cars, warning them about the accident and rerouting them around it.

Qualcomm

This is what driving looks in a world where data flows between cars as effortlessly as kitten photos on Instagram, and it’s going to change the way we drive, long before self-driving cars take away the wheel completely.

Driving on the grid

Anyone who has ever used “Find my iPhone” won’t be that impressed to see a dot moving across a screen, tracking a car. GPS was impressive in 2001. But it’s also only one tiny piece of what V2X can do. Today’s high-tech cars are practically rolling laboratories, packed to the radiators with switches, sensors, cameras, radar, microphones, and more.

“In our world, we have all of these vehicles driving around that know all this stuff. But we don’t have the ability to understand that. We don’t have the ability to collect that,” explains Armstrong. “That’s exactly what connected vehicle technology is about; it’s about tapping into and all of those sensors and sharing that information not only with other cars but with infrastructure as well.”

ford denver v2x map
Nick Mokey/Digital Trends

Traditional doppler radar can show a rough blob of weather conditions on a map, but the sensors in a car can give a more accurate look at weather, block by block. (Although some worry that traditional radar isn’t good enough; will high-res radar help?) The speed of windshield wipers can indicate the severity of rain. Traction control activating might mean slick roads. Accelerometers can measure the thump of broken pavement. “They have micro-level weather data about bridges and roadways, and they can share that in this V2X environment,” Armstrong says. “What roads have been plowed? Where are we seeing potholes?”

The data can flow into the vehicle, too. Armstrong says CDOT could issue icy road alerts in the winter, warn drivers about an accident around the corner, and even banish deserted “work zones” by issuing alerts only when construction workers are actually active on the roadway.

A matter of life and death

Riding along in a prototype V2X-equipped Ford Taurus, we see this ability firsthand. We’re about to obliviously coast through a green light when an in-dash screen flashes angrily, warning us to stop. Our driver slams on the brakes before a speeding van on the intersecting road plows through his red light, nearly T-boning us.

Today these examples are contrived, but when all cars talk to one another, there’s no reason the same situation can’t play out over and over in real life, to dramatic effect.

“This technology promises mitigation up to 80 percent of non-impaired accidents.”

“This technology promises mitigation of up to 80 percent of non-impaired accidents,” claims Jarrett Wendt, executive vice president at CityNow. That’s a bold claim in a country where car safety statistics have actually been skidding backwards. “We’ve gone from a little over 30,000 crashes to now over 40,000 crashes,” Wendt says. “For the past four decades that was a trend that was going down. We were reducing fatalities. And now we’ve seen that trend turn upside down and start to go back up.”

“This is what this is really all about: Improving safety on the roadways and taking care of this problem where 40,000 plus people nationally are dying.”

Do you have a choice?

For any of this to work, more cars will need to talk. That means putting it in every car. And that means some thorny privacy issues. If your next car has V2X, does that mean the government can see everywhere you go?

Yes, with an important asterisk: They won’t know it’s you. “Anonymity is built into the standard,” insists Tyler Svitak, CDOT’s connected and autonomous technology program manager. “So VIN, license plate, make and model of the car, we don’t know any of that. All we know is that something on the system is showing us this behavior.”

v2x wires
Nick Mokey/Digital Trends

Even the hardware has been built for anonymity: The cellular modem in a V2X car will change its MAC address — akin to a digital license plate — every five minutes. “So, in theory,” Svitak says, “you can only track one actor on the system for up to five minutes.”

But if a red dot disappears from a street corner one second and reappears in the same spot the next second as a blue dot, wouldn’t it be easy enough to assume they’re the same car? Officials concede some amount of data engineering could be used to extrapolate data that isn’t explicitly transmitted.

The laws, they insist, would prevent authorities from ever using your identity, even if they could somehow get it. “Legislatively we cannot even use technology like cameras to do enforcement,” explains Amy Ford from CDOT. “We can’t even use it to do enforcement for HOV lanes.”

“We have no ability to say, ‘That is a vehicle that you should pull over and give a speeding ticket to.’”

Authorities could spot a corridor of speeding cars with V2X and dispatch police to tamp down on the situation. But they’d have to peg you with a radar gun the old-fashioned way — not the chip in your car that said you were going 93 mph. “We have no ability to say, ‘That is a vehicle that you should pull over and give a speeding ticket to.’” Armstrong insists.

What if you want to opt out? “Right now, it is up to OEMs whether to implement this technology or not, and it’s up to them how to give their drivers access to that technology,” says Armstrong. While the Obama administration favored mandatory V2X in future vehicles, the current administration is leaving it up to manufacturers.

And they’re staying mum. Ford representatives refused to give an official stance on allowing drivers to switch V2X technology on and off, since the technology isn’t in the wild yet. But Jovan Zagajac, technology manager with Ford, explained the merits of an always-on system.

v2x presentation data
Nick Mokey/Digital Trends

“The security of the overall society is better protected if everybody’s using it,” Zagajac explains. He likens it to aviation, where radar-based tracking and GPS have contributed to the safety of the sky for decades. “If I decide to turn my vehicle off, it’s almost like flying in stealth mode. Unless you’re military or something, you probably don’t want to do that right?”

Besides, says Panasonic’s Wendt, it’s kind of a moot point. “Our cell phones are far more innate in their ability to be traced and tracked,” Wendt says. In other words, if Big Brother wanted to know where you were, he’d probably just get a warrant and talk to Verizon.

A connected future

Regardless of whether or not you want it in your car, V2X is coming. But the timeline is fuzzy. Zagajac wouldn’t speak for Ford, but the 5G Automotive Association predicts the first V2X cars will begin to roll off assembly lines in the United States around 2020.

Other countries may get there first. “There are some parts of the world that are pursuing this more aggressively,” Zagajac says. “Such as China, and Asia in general.”

Ford wouldn’t explicitly discuss costs, but suggested that the expense is somewhere in the hundreds, not thousands, of dollars per vehicle. Piggybacking on existing technology may mitigate the cost, since the modems involved, built by Qualcomm, are closely related to the cellular modems already used for systems like Ford Sync.

Of course, local governments will also need to update existing infrastructure, like light poles, with receivers to harvest data from the streets and make the most of it in data centers. In some cities where cameras are already omnipresent, that will mean tapping into existing fiber and quickly blanketing the city in coverage. In rural areas, it could take years or decades.

“There are some parts of the world that are pursuing this more aggressively.”

But you don’t need government to use V2X. Vehicles can pass messages between one another, and in open rural areas, those signals can reach more than a mile. “Smaller communities can still benefit from V2V when there’s multiple vehicles that are connected,” says Matt Drennan-Scace of Ford.

Even pedestrians could benefit from V2X if it ends up baked into smartphones, though Zagajac concedes that the accuracy of GPS remains a hurdle there. “Imagine you’re in the middle of a city and everybody carries a phone, and everybody’s transmitting. You will see a whole stampede of people ‘on the road,’ whether or not they are, because of lack of accuracy.” Pedestrians are also less predictable than cars: A runner could change directions and step into traffic before an algorithm is even able to detect the danger.

Bicyclists might represent a better use-case. “Imagine that your helmet had one of these radio devices built in,” Zagajac says. “You could use the visor and the sound in your helmet to display cues about traffic behind you. This is all very doable. And, in fact, I think it’s more relevant and closer to implementation than pedestrians.”

Will autonomous cars make V2X obsolete? Absolutely not, says Zagajac. “With an autonomous vehicle, you still have the driver, it’s just not a human driver,” he explains. “So that driver, the robot, will require this information much like a human driver.”

And from dodging red-light runners to dodging traffic, we all probably need what V2X will deliver.

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