“Talking” cars take to Michigan streets in DOT vehicle-to-vehicle communication test

NHTSA DOT UMTRI V2V test in Ann Arbor, Michigan

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are creating an automotive hive mind. Back in April, the NHTSA announced a test of vehicle-to-vehicle, or V2V, systems, which allow cars to “talk” to each other and warn drivers of dangerous conditions. Now, the two government agencies are deploying 3,000 vehicles equipped with the system in Michigan.

The test, implemented with the help of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), will take place on 73 lane-miles of road in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Sensors have been installed on US-23 and M-14, the two main highways through the city, and at several crucial intersections.

UMTRI also equipped cars from eight manufacturers (including Ford, GM, and Toyota) with V2V hardware, as well as data collection equipment. The cars will be able to read signals from the roadside sensors, and each other, and warn drivers of impending doom.

The test will cost $25 million, with 80 percent of the money coming from the DOT. Both the DOT and NHTSA believe the technology will reduce crashes in situations that don’t involve driver impairment. The NHTSA will decide whether to make V2V mandatory based in part on the results of the Michigan test.

“This is a big deal and I think everybody here believes this has a lot of promise,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in Ann Arbor, “but until we see the data, until the study is complete, we won’t know with certainty what promise it really has. A year from now, I think we will.”

“This is a game-changer for transportation,” said Jim Sayer, an associate research scientist at UMTRI. “There are many safety and convenience applications to this, as well as applications related to mobility and sustainability.”

V2V-equipped cars may talk to each other, but they’re more like Borg drones, or R2-D2, than KITT. They use a system called dedicated short range communication, which works like Wifi but is supposedly less vulnerable to interference, to check each other’s location and speed. The V2V equipment is sensitive enough to tell when a nearby car brakes suddenly.

Dedicated short range communication was chosen over radar, which is used in many active cruise control systems, because it has a longer range (up to 300 meters) and see around corners.

The cars use the same network to communicate with the roadside sensors, judging whether it is safe to proceed through an intersection. They can even change a traffic light from red to green if no one is coming. Do mere mortals (or vehicles) deserve that power?

If a crash seems imminent, V2V-equipped cars will warn their drivers with loud beeps, flashing lights, or seat and steering wheel vibrations, depending on the manufacturer. Hopefully, V2V won’t be installed in any cars with massaging seats.

“We want people to get warnings when they need warnings,” said Micheal Shulman, technical leader for vehicle communications at Ford, “but we don’t want them to get alerts when there’s a car in another lane that’s not really a threat.”

The government and the car companies will find out exactly how drivers respond to V2V over the coming year. After the Michigan test is finished, they will decide whether to move ahead with development; a production-ready V2V system may take five years to reach showrooms.

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