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Safety benefits drive US policy support for connected vehicles

While US policy-makers ponder whether or how to support Intelligent Transport Systems, the private sector is pushing ahead.

This year will be a critical one for the next generation of intelligent transportation systems in the US. In August, a major federal government-backed trial of connected-vehicle technology begins in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Its results will inform a decision on what role Washington will play, if any, in seeding infrastructure and other future ITS investments by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), due in 2013.At the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB) annual conference, civil servants previewed aspects of the Ann Arbor Safety Pilot. As we will see, this project could in itself define how effectively the public sector can participate in the latest wave of innovation in automotive technology.

One significant distinction needs to be made first. The decision on further action rests with NHTSA specifically because safety is the overwhelming criterion on which the US ITS programme is judged.

“In Europe and Japan, there is a much stronger emphasis on greenhouse gas emissions over safety and mobility,” said Steven Shladover, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley and former chairman of ITS America.

Shladover has compiled a comparative worldwide study of ITS R&D, and noted that while many of the challenges remain the same everywhere (such as verification, security, communications infrastructure and protocols, and detailed cost benefit analyses), this difference in emphasis could become a nuance that has implications for international standardisation.

The Ann Arbor project, run by the University of Michigan, is wide-ranging. With wireless devices installed in up to 3,000 vehicles, it will involve implementations at intersections, roadside communications, freeway-based vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication, and warning messaging among other features.

It will also undertake comparisons of available wireless communications protocols including dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) as currently defined, cellular, traditional Wi-Fi and the emerging DSRC IEEE 802.11p standard.

In parallel with this, Brian Cronin, research team leader within the US Department of Transportation’s ITS Joint Programme Office, said that work will also move quickly on locking down the payment model.

“Will it be public, will it be public-private partnerships or will it be private through companies like Google, IBM and Microsoft?” he queried.

This points to a local dilemma that ITS faces in the US – it is becoming big business. Based on ‘traditional’ implementations, such as the 511 traveller information and GPS-based services, it has grown over the last 20 years to become a $48bn industry accounting for 180,000 jobs. This year will see the sector pass 50,000 professionals trained specifically in ITS services.

As such, the private sector is beginning to drive the technological direction. With innovations like Ford Sync having seeded the way, connected cars are now going through a huge app-based growth phase (though not without concerns).

TRB conference delegates, meanwhile, could pick up the latest US edition of Wired, which discusses autonomous vehicles and how Google’s converted, driverless Toyota Prius is already cruising the streets of Nevada, the only state where such cars are legal. By contrast, autonomous vehicles are not really on the government roadmap. The director of the ITS Joint Programme Office even referred to them several times as “automatic vehicles”.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the US ITS programme. From a safety but also economic viewpoint, it has reason to celebrate. In 1992, there were 44,000 road fatalities; this year there are projections that the number will be just 33,000. ITS has made US roads safer.

And looking to the future, Scott Belcher, current CEO of ITS America, noted: “The Connected Vehicle Programme is the next major advance in transportation and could lead to an 82 per cent reduction in crashes where there is no apparent cause.”

Indeed, cars such as the US 2012 Ford Focus already offer forward collision mitigation and lane departure warning features, but it is still the private sector leading. At an infrastructure level, the public sector players at TRB will be looking to Ann Arbor to help them catch up. And at an economic level, Detroit’s automakers also need the government to sort the infrastructure to surround their already burgeoning innovations – even at the most basic level, what use is lane departure warning if the paint on the lanes themselves is fading away? *

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