There's a lot of talk these days about connected cars; and about autonomous cars.
And a lot of that talk seems to treat the two as the same thing.
The two are, if you'll pardon the use of the term, connected. But they mean different things.
Even the term “connected vehicles” itself can have different meanings. At the most basic level, a vehicle can be connected to the world of infotainment via bluetooth cell-phone connections or GPS navigation systems or via satellite radio, for examples.
It can also be connected to its surroundings and to other vehicles via on-board safety and driver assist systems. Such vehicles typically use cameras, radar, lidar and microwave signals to detect, warn of and sometimes react to external stimuli such as other vehicles, pedestrians, animals or stationary objects.
These systems may include everything from proximity monitors, cross-traffic alerts and blind-spot warning systems to adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping and automatic collision-avoidance braking systems.
They also encompass park assist or automatic self-parking systems and they'll soon include obstacle-avoidance steering-assistance systems as well.
All these systems are resident within a vehicle. Sensors in the vehicle send out and receive signals that bounce back or monitor what they see via on-board cameras and then take appropriate actions.
There may be a level of route guidance in the navigation systems based on externally monitored real-time traffic conditions but for the most part the vehicles are self-sufficient without external input.
The next big step is to connect vehicles to each other and to their surroundings so they can talk to each other in their own electronic language.
Such vehicles are not far away. In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced earlier this year that it plans to make these vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication technologies mandatory equipment.
An implementation date has not yet been set but discussion seems to be centred around a 2020 time frame.
By "talking” to each other and sharing data such as speed and position at rates of up to ten times per second, vehicles could go well beyond what today's self-contained systems can accomplish in determining and helping avoid potentially dangerous situations.
Another layer to that technology is vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2X) communication, whereby vehicles exchange information with roadway infrastructure such as caution signals or traffic lights, for example.
Over the past two years, a massive real-world test program, involving 2,800 vehicles, has been under way in Ann Arbor, Mich., to evaluate the effectiveness of these technologies.
The program was funded by the DOT and administered by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI). In addition to volunteer drivers, eight automakers — Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen — provided vehicles for the test program.
The vehicles were fitted with wireless transponders that enabled both V2V and V2X communication. For the latter, 27 roadside transponders were installed over approximately 120 kilometres of roads in and around Ann Arbor.
Communication among the vehicles themselves and with the infrastructure was invisible to the vehicles' drivers — they had no indication it was taking place — except in the event of a potential crash situation.
When such situations were identified, the affected drivers were alerted by a visual or audible warning but the vehicles themselves did not take any corrective action.
As a first stage, that's the approach NHTSA is taking with its proposed regulations. Vehicles would be required to warn drivers of potential dangers but not to take avoidance action. And there is no V2X capability in the proposed mandate.
Given the level of driver assistance technologies currently available, however, it's logical that many vehicles will simply add the V2V signals as a further level of input to improve the effectiveness of those systems already in use.
While all these features will enhance the levels of driver assistance available, they will still fall short of full autonomy. They are, however, stepping stones toward truly autonomous cars.
Most of the experimental self-driving vehicles now being tested employ primarily self-contained systems, taking today's technologies further into the future. In some cases, however, they also employ real-time mapping and traffic information and GPS positioning data.
Adding the input from V2V and potentially V2X systems can only increase their capability and confidence levels, bringing them another step closer to realization.
Even if that realization remains some years distant, the added benefits of V2V and V2X connectivity are almost certain to pay dividends in terms of reduced numbers of collisions, injuries and deaths on the road.
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