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Always connected, always safe: Technology provides a guiding hand for car drivers

Technology provides a guiding hand for car drivers

It's a somewhat chilling statistic; 1.2million people will die on the world's roads this year. By the time you have finished reading this sentence, another person will have been killed or have suffered serious injury.

With the advent of higher levels of technology in cars, it's a figure you'd expect to be declining; but it's not. Steve Wainwright, general manager, EMEA, with Freescale, told the recent Future World Symposium that things are getting worse. "In 1990, the number nine cause of death around the world was a car accident. In 2020, car accidents are expected to be the third most common cause of death."

In India, there are some 100,000 fatalities on the roads each year, equating to 145 deaths for every 100,000 cars. China is reporting 90,000 deaths a year; 61.6 per 100k cars.

It's a figure that technology companies can help to reduce through a number of approaches and it's no surprise to find leading organisations developing potential solutions. But technology of itself is not going to solve the problem of auto related fatalities; whatever solutions are developed need to support drivers, rather than distract them.

Wainwright recalled the BlackBerry server crash in 2011, when service was broadly unavailable for three days around the world. "At the time the servers crashed," he said, "BlackBerry had a 42% market share in the United Arab Emirates. During the time the servers were out, the accident rate in the UAE dropped by 20%. In Abu Dhabi, the accident rate dropped by 40%. We have to ask what mobile telephony is doing to those driving cars."

Car safety systems are nothing new; the first passive systems, such as airbags, appeared in the 1990s. Active safety systems are in place today, with predictive safety systems set to appear in the next couple of years. But whether the world is ready for the autonomous car is a matter for discussion. Wainwright said: "People are discarding the concept of the autonomous car at the moment because it doesn't fit their social profile."

For now, it appears technology is distracting drivers, rather than assisting them. Figures from the US show the extent of the problem, said Wainwright. "While alcohol related accidents are declining, distraction related accidents are going the other way." The figures show 25% of all accidents in the US and 16% of all fatalities are related to driver distraction. "That equates to 5000 deaths and 450,000 injuries in the US," he added, "with a cost estimated to be in excess of $230billion a year."

Looking to compare the causes of driver distraction, the US Department of Transportation conducted a study in 2009. Ranking the use of a hand held mobile phone as having a distraction factor of 1, the study ranked dialling a number on a hand held phone at 4.5 and reaching for a moving object in the car at nearly 9. Text messaging was, however, off the scale and considered to be 23 times more likely to cause an accident.

Despite legislation and awareness campaigns, there is the acceptance that drivers will use mobile phones on the move. "They will use their phones one way or another," Wainwright observed. "If that's the case, we have to make that as safe as possible. But we need to do more work as an industry on how to present information – and quickly."

Wolfgang Muller-Pietralla, head of future affairs with Volkswagen Group Research, told the recent Global Semiconductor Alliance forum that consumer and automotive interfaces were diverging. "People are looking to use technology in a human way – touch or gestures, for example. "We need to find solutions that allow them to use technology in their cars," he said.

It's OK not to be connected
The US' seeming acceptance of mobile phone use on the move is changing, as evidenced by quotes from David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – the US' top automotive safety official. He said: "I'm putting everyone on notice; a car is not a mobile device. I'm not in the business of helping people post on Facebook better. It's OK not to be connected when you're operating a car."

Yet, like it or not, the connected car is almost certain to be on the roads in the not too distant future. Mike Short, vp public affairs with mobile telephony group Telefonica, asked: "What's not connected to the internet today?

Today, there are 9billion connected devices and there will be 24bn connected devices by 2020; maybe more. New services are emerging and the revenue opportunity is predicted to reach $1.2trillion. By 2022, it's likely there will be 300m connected cars; 25% of all vehicles."

Despite the hype, the connected car is by no means a new concept. As far back as 1999, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allocated 75MHz of the 5.9GHz spectrum for dedicated short range communications, or DSRC. In 2008, the European Commission allocated part of the 5.9GHz band for what it termed 'priority road safety applications and inter vehicle infrastructure communications'. The EC's intention is to ensure compatibility with the US; even if the frequencies are not identical, they will be sufficiently close to allow the use of the same antenna and radio transmitter/receiver.

DSRC, or its European equivalent, will handle with car to car and car to infrastructure communications. While they accept the role which mobile phones and other wide area technologies can play, the developers believe there are particular applications with connected cars that will need rapid short range links to be established.

A typical example cited by the EC is where a vehicle detects a slippery patch on a road. A car to car communication system can transmit this information to nearby cars equipped with similar technology. Similarly, information about a sudden road closure can be sent from a control centre to a transmitter along the particular road, which then transmits it to passing vehicles.

The DSRC suite contains a set of standards called Wireless Access in Vehicular Environments (WAVE), designed to support applications such as forward collision warning, intersection collision warning and other vehicle safety services.

Safety pilot to test the technology
A one year Safety Pilot programme is being conducted by the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute. The test, taking place in Ann Arbor, will see some 2800 vehicles 'talking' to each other using vehicle to vehicle communications devices. These devices will send and receive data to and from other equipped vehicles at 10Hz, translating the data into a warning if specific safety hazards are detected.

Amongst the devices to be tested are systems that are embedded in the vehicle, aftermarket safety systems and what are termed 'simple' communications beacons brought into the vehicle.

The Safety Pilot will ob¬tain empirical test data for determining the technologies' effectiveness at reducing crashes. It will also test a limited set of vehicle to infrastructure applications.

However, there is a potential cloud on the horizon. Last year, two US Congress members made proposals regarding the 5.9GHz spectrum. One suggested that 5.9GHz be opened to unlicensed users, while the other proposed the bandwidth be put up for auction. The effect of both proposals would be that 5.9GHz would no longer be reserved for connected car applications.

So why is there such a focus on the connected car at a time when legislators are trying to discourage the use of mobile devices? Ged Lancaster, senior manager, systems and software engineering, with Jaguar Land Rover, gave one answer. "One reason why we are pursuing the connected car is so we can remain competitive. We have to enhance the services available to the driver, but making those services work is hard."

Car manufacturers – referred to in the industry as OEMs – are in an awkward position. Their customers are used to the rapid churn of the consumer world and are looking for the same experiences in their cars. "The problem," Lancaster observed, "is that a car isn't a consumable." But smartphones are and drivers are looking to use them to bring services into their cars.

Some of the services being researched by Jaguar Land Rover include remote diagnostics, Wi-Fi, streaming media and functional integration. "In China, for example, it could be 1000km to the nearest dealership," he continued. "Our challenge is to provide customer satisfaction using low level services."

For the OEM, this is a change in focus. For many years, OEMs controlled what was provided in the car, although after market equipment plays a role. Now, the OEM has to cater for smartphones, for example, without having the benefit of a revenue stream.

Developing a connected car is likely to be a step by step process, according to Lancaster. "It will start with basic M2M services, followed by 3G/4G communications using the driver's SIM card. After that, we'll be looking to link into Wi-Fi hotspots, then the customer's home and/or office Wi-Fi. All this is very difficult to do. How do you ensure secure communications, for example? Developing an infrastructure that can handle these requirements will be hard."

Wi-Fi hotspots are likely to prove a challenge. "Registration is very complicated," Lancaster contended. "I'm not enthusiastic about doing work that will generate customer dissatisfaction."

Even if the network is in place to support the connected car – and today that is far from the case – making a connection will be another challenge. "It has to be a high grade connection," he continued. "A car is a Faraday cage and there can be significant degradation of the signal. The connected car might be a great business proposition, but it will need much better connections."

One thing the connected car will need is an efficient antenna and it is here that OEMs are inadvertently working against themselves. "There are very few places to put an antenna," Lancaster reflected. The Range Rover Evoque – currently the best selling Range Rover model – has an all glass roof; there is no ground plane. "Antenna performance is worse than a model with a solid roof," he admitted. "We're working with aerospace manufacturers to find technology that will allow different approaches, but it's hard work – and expensive."

But, as Lancaster pointed out, it doesn't matter how good the antenna is and where it's placed if reliable services aren't available. "It's another thing that affects the customer experience. At the moment, you are lucky to get 1Mbit/s on the move; that's not good if you're trying to share that with other people in the car. And it's hard to maintain a call, particularly on busy motorways. These are customer dissatisfaction points and we all need to work on systems that improve the state of affairs."

In the end, said Lancaster, it will be about the demands which drivers place on the system. "At the moment, industry has second guessed what these demands are and may be," he concluded.

Graham Pitcher

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Hi, a closely related question: For a real improvement in road safety, I think it will be necessary to add in connected cyclists and pedestrians. Although they do not have power generation, it is not out of the question to have something like a smartphone app to communicate position and intention over a reasonable period of battery power. How would this fit into the greater scheme?

Posted by: Rod, 23/05/2012

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