US pitches wireless highway safety plan

The U.S. Department of Transportation and automakers are attempting to garner participation from the telecom industry in an ambitious project to enable nationwide wireless communication between cars and roadside facilities with the goal of heading off accidents and alleviating traffic congestion.

The Department of Transportation and officials from DaimlerChrysler and Nissan recently pitched the Vehicle Infrastructure Integration (VII) project to carriers and service providers attending the Telecom ’05 conference in Las Vegas. VII is a US$3 billion to $10 billion federally funded effort to build a 220,000-hot-spot network — supporting IEEE 802.11a and 802.11p — along interstate and state highway systems.

“We’re not in the telecommunications business, so we need help,” says Bill Jones, technical director of the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) in the Department of Transportation. “This is our first foray to really try and open up the dialogue between our two industries.”

“We need [the telecom industry] to be a part of this,” adds Chris Wilson, vice president of ITS strategy and programs at DaimlerChrysler.

VII is a 984-foot dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) network using 75 MHz of spectrum in the 5.85- to 5.925-GHz band. Auto manufacturers would install DSRC and GPS antennas, receivers and transceivers in all new vehicles, while the Department of Transportation would install the communications links on the roadside.

Cars could then communicate with each other over short distances to warn of impending congestion, or an accident to avoid, or for state and federal highway administration personnel to share road advisory information with vehicles. The system is intended to reduce the expenses associated with accidents that involve injuries or fatalities, which costs the country $260 billion per year; and with congestion, which costs $100 billion per year, VII officials say.

The DSRC system is not designed for casual conversation, these officials stressed.

“We’re not designing this to support non-transportation needs,” Wilson says. “It’s not subject to the whims of consumers.”

Drivers will still use cell phones, WiMAX and Wi-Fi in addition to DSRC, Wilson says. “We will never see a car that only has DSRC,” he says.

That’s one of the hooks that VII proponents hope will attract the participation of carriers and service providers. The automotive industry could provide access to tens of millions of people who buy new cars every year and to the 230 million cars already on the road. Once one VII radio antenna is installed in their cars, and it works, they may be inclined to purchase others.

“The first radio reduces threshold for getting a second radio in,” Wilson says.

There are also opportunities for carriers to provide backhaul services for the DSRC system, as well as in assisting the Department of Transportation with service in sparsely populated rural areas or densely populated metropolitan areas, and in providing long-term maintenance and operations for the nationwide network.

“This is another infrastructure,” the Department of Transportation’s Jones says. “That is not the bag of the public sector.”

The Department of Transportation also could provide carriers with access to rights-of-way or collocation facilities along every U.S. roadway, and to 75 MHz of licensed spectrum, Jones says.

The U.S. Telecom Association, which represents carriers, says it is “helping the Transportation Department’s outreach effort to alert and educate service providers about the new opportunities available.”

The Telecommunications Industry Association, which represents equipment suppliers, says it is generally supportive — philosophically and financially — of intelligent transportation initiatives such as VII.

The operational concept of VII would have vehicles communicating with intersections and with each other via sensors, probes and aggregators to prevent crashes. A vehicle would be transmitting anonymous on-board sensor data to a roadside unit (RSU) every time it passes one.

The anonymous data received at an RSU would be sent to an aggregation point from which it would then be forwarded to authorized subscribers.

Each aggregation point could receive data from several thousand RSUs. All data would be organized and ordered by the geographic coordinates from the vehicles and would be available to authorized subscribers.

Other uses for the DSRC system include delivery of auto maintenance information between driver and manufacturer. Drivers could receive maintenance update and reminder information from manufacturers, or the car itself could notify manufacturers when a part was wearing out. This could reduce the costs manufacturers incur for programming diagnostics into cars and for managing customer relationships, Wilson says.

The DSRC system would not be without limitations. Because it would be a short-range system, connectivity would be intermittent, VII officials say. “This is not an anytime, anywhere system,” says Ronald Heft, senior principal engineer for Nissan North America.

That’s where overlap with existing GPS systems, such as GM’s OnStar, might end. OnStar is a satellite- and cellular-based system that links drivers to an OnStar service center, where advisers offer drivers real-time, personalized travel assistance and crash notification information.

OnStar is not designed for short-range vehicle-to-vehicle communications nor real-time safety applications, Wilson says, such as cooperative collision avoidance.

“I need to know what’s going on 200 meters around me,” Wilson says. “OnStar is not suited for that goal.”

GM, the creator of OnStar, is also involved with the VII project.

Vendors are designing equipment for VII, and core safety applications are being tested. Those involved in the VII initiative expect an end-to-end reference system to be completed next summer, and for field tests to be conducted in 2007.

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