The city that's ruled by self driving cars
25th Jul 2013 | 14:41
A place where commuters can read books at the wheel
The future car is coming sooner than you think. Someday, in urban locales like London and San Francisco, incredibly high-tech cars will be connected to each other, the roadway, and to a command center that works like an air traffic control tower.
You'll take your hands off the wheel and take a nap during a morning commute. Crashes and pile-ups will be so unusual they will make national news - the entire car ecosystem will be computer controlled.
The burning question, then is: how will we ever reach this future state?
It was announced last week that the UK government will begin testing driverless car technology later this year. And many car brands like Volvo are busy building their own autonomous auto tech.
But for many drivers, the reality of a morning commute is that there are still mechanical breakdowns, construction delays, and frequent accidents.
Technical advancements like adaptive cruise control and lane departure intervention show promise in cars like the Nissan Infiniti Q50 we looked at last month, but driving is still mostly a human endeavor.
That's changing one car at a time on a stretch of roadway in Michigan, USA. Set to complete next month, a vehicle-to-vehicle test started last August and involves 2,850 cars from various car makers including Ford, GM, and Toyota.
TechRadar has exclusive early results from the test and visited the actual segment of roadway just outside of Detroit.
Testing Area and Pilot
The northwest corner of Ann Arbor, Michigan looks like any other small town in the world. There are major highways connected to densely-populated urban streets. Traffic slows and stalls as expected, and the green roadside signs look no different from any US city.
Driving in the area, you won't notice any indicators that the US Department of Transportation (DOT) granted the University of Michigan a $14.9M contract to test V2V. There are tree-lined streets, cars that look indistinguishable in every way, and there's even construction.
But look a bit further and you will see the tell-tale signs: antennas attached to bridges and on the roadside that look a bit like high-powered Wi-Fi hotspots you'd find at the mall or corporate office. Cars, trucks, and even mass transit buses tap into the network as they drive the 73 "lane-miles" of the route over the northeast corner of the city. (A lane mile is one 12-foot lane, which can include multiple lanes on one highway or city street.)
Inside the vehicle, there is a basic safety message indicator (BSM) that works like a black box of safety information, feeding real-time stats to every car in the fleet.
"Arbor was carefully selected for this [test]," says Mike Shulman, technical leader in Ford's Active Safety Research and Innovation department. "There is a great diversity in roadway conditions, including highways, overpasses, roundabouts, simple and complex intersections, suburban subdivisions, schools, hospitals, and shopping centers.
This allowed us to test the system under a wide variety of conditions in a small geographic area."
Shulman says the wireless signal uses a modified version of Wi-Fi called 802.11p and a transmission signal called DSRC (dedicated short-range communication).
The signal is encrypted so that only vehicles with the BSM can receive and interpret the data. Each vehicle transmits its position, speed, heading, brake status, path history, and path prediction ten times per second for precise safety guidance -- like a Twitter feed for cars.
The underlying idea with the V2V test is to find out whether a government-empowered safety system helps reduce accidents. This is not the same as the safety measures already inside a luxury sedan like the 2013 Audi S6, which can read roadside lane markings and apply the brakes if a sensor detects you are getting too close to a Fed Ex truck ahead.
Safety measures normally use sensors that work in a cocoon. In modern cars like the Infiniti Q56 or 2014 Chevy Impala, a blindspot detector knows if there is a car in the next lane and warns you to stay put. They also display traffic incident reports on the navigation system.
But, these high-tech cars are unaware of actual safety conditions. For example, if there is a crash at an intersection one mile ahead, that data will not appear as a traffic incident in time. (The navigation system intends to warn you about a delay, not as a safety precaution.)
In the Michigan test that concludes next month, the major difference is that other cars send safety messages in real-time. For example, Ford deployed eight Taurus SHO sedans which use seven different applications that read data from the BSM. These include systems that warn you about a forward collision, potential side impact, or a blindspot crash.
To the driver, the messages can take many different forms. The test cars might send the BSM message to the blindspot warning which displays a light near the side mirror. The driver looks to make a lane change, but knows there is an approaching car.
Why is this effective? Shulman says the range is much better in a V2V situation. In a blindspot scenario, you might start moving over in the lane in current production cars, see the warning, but still collide. With V2V, he says, you would get more advanced warning. Another advantage: any new production car could take advantage of the safety warnings without the need for expensive external sensors scattered around the vehicle.
A good example of how this works: the 2013 Audi S7 is already equipped with surround-sound audio warnings. They chime from the direction of an imminent collision. In V2V, you might get a softer chime that grows louder based on a potential hazard. And, the test is even more advanced in terms of potential safety issues between multiple cars.
"Intersection Movement Assist is an application [in the Taurus SHO] which warns when a collision is imminent from the side, such as at an intersection," says Shulman. "For example, imagine if someone violates a red light or a stop sign.
About 35% of all fatal crashes are at intersections and these crashes are difficult to address with autonomous sensing because of the large field of view required for cameras or radars. Cross Loss Warning is a warning to other vehicles sent when a vehicle has experienced an event such as traction control activation, stability control activation, or airbag deployment."
As you can guess, the data analytics from a test with nearly 3,000 participants will take time to ingest. (A DOT representative told TechRadar.com it will take several months to analyze the results.) However, Ford's Shulman did say they have some preliminary findings.
"We have seen the expected number of interactions in the field," he says, speaking to TechRadar.com. "The data analysis by the government will be used to estimate the benefits of the system, to potentially justify a regulation mandating this technology.
"The data analysis by the OEMs such as Ford is being used to identify necessary modifications to the standards for the BSM and for improvements to the warning algorithms for the applications."
Shulman says some of the initial test specifications used by all car makers were "ambiguous" and they did not have enough time to identify the issues before the testing started. This points to a need for better standards before there would be a mass roll-out or any US government mandates about what safety features are required in all vehicles on the road.
Shulman said GPS antenna placement inside different makes and models was a challenge. GPS location is one of the most important factors in a V2V test because it determines exactly where each car is located on the road. He said the GPS placement impacted the performance of the testing and that internal placement was "not viable" for the tests.
He says the real-time monitoring, which analyzes data such as the exact location of a vehicle in the lane and how many cars are in an intersection at one time, proved valuable.
Thilo Koslowski, a Gartner auto analyst, says the Michigan test is proving to be a success: the DOT collected a mass of data that will help move V2V technology forward. At the same time, he says the Ann Arbor setting was a highly controlled environment in a confined area.
"We will see V2V deployed in our vehicles and infrastructures, but it will require government support to do this because it is a chicken-and-egg challenge," he says.
"The first vehicles equipped with this technology will be pretty lonely because they won't have anyone to talk to. It will take another decade before we see some meaningful market penetration."
Most automakers agree this first test will be one of many required. There will have to be wider, focused tests and broader, over-arching tests. Still, with traffic fatalities are on the rise: in the US (the number reached 34,080 deaths, the highest since 2005) there is a strong push to make V2v a reality within the next decade -- or even less..
"By the end of the year, the NHTSA will announce their decision about going forward with developing a regulation mandating V2V technology on new vehicles," says Shulman. "Ford and other OEMs will work with the US DOT on [which] V2I apps will be prototyped, tested and standardized, and the infrastructure to support these applications will be deployed."
"A coordinated national deployment of vehicles and infrastructure would be the best. It is likely that DSRC-equipped infrastructure will grow along with the number of DSRC-equipped vehicles, similar to the way the number of hotspots grew with the number of devices that are Wi-Fi capable," Shulman continued, hinting at a "point release" mentality for safety upgrades.
Will this combination of sensor technology in the car and V2V communication work? That's what the DOT, automakers, the University of Michigan, and safety experts will debate into the next year and beyond. The good news: the future car is coming, one test vehicle at a time.