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Communicating cars: Understanding the road to autonomous vehicles

April 02, 2017

By Martin Thibault

Autonomous vehicles are on their way, but what tech hurdles need to be cleared before they’re commonplace

Transportation systems have greatly evolved since the invention of the wheel. The next revolution is around the corner; with autonomous vehicles coming to our roads, this transformation should rival the car’s replacement of the horse and carriage in the early 1900s.

Aside from the major socioeconomic impacts of this transportation revolution, it will dramatically affect safety, environment, and traffic flow. The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) estimates that 80% of all vehicular collisions could be avoided through onboard technology. Such technology would help drivers make smarter choices about their routes, thereby cutting down their travel time and invariably decreasing the amount of harmful greenhouse gas emissions in the environment.

Expect a profound shake-up in our transportation habits as the transportation industry and general population embrace connected vehicles—and eventually autonomous vehicles.  

While higher-end vehicles are already equipped with certain safety warnings, the technology used doesn’t permit communication between vehicles. Technological standards have been developed, but for the communication system to be truly universal, all car companies will need to comply with these standards. The goal of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication is to enable all vehicles within a specific range to communicate with each other. The vehicle informs its driver about potential dangers well before he/she can see these. Such applications could also be used by public transit organizations in urban areas; for example, a bus leaving an intersection stop and pulling out into the road, could warn a vehicle trying to pass it for a right-hand turn.

V2V communication doesn’t prevent all vehicular collisions, especially the kind involving a vehicle that leaves the pavement. Vehicles must be able to communicate with infrastructures as well if these kinds of collisions are to be avoided. The USDOT estimates that vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology helps reduce collisions by a further 12%, compared with the collision avoidance scenarios previously forecast for V2V technology. The related equipment transmits the relevant information for display inside vehicles or on variable message signs, so that drivers are warned. This information could also be transmitted from a traffic management center to equipment along the roadways, which in turn relay the information to vehicles.

The technology for communicating between vehicles and pedestrians (V2P) should also substantially diminish the number of collisions involving vulnerable users (pedestrians, cyclists, and those with limited mobility). In this mode, communication could be unilateral or bilateral. For this to be effective, it’s critical that vulnerable users employ a smart phone app to inform vehicles of their presence. According to the USDOT, this mode of communication could lead to a 46% reduction in collisions.

Ultimately, combining all three communication modes could hasten the arrival of autonomous vehicles. Industry predictions have autonomous vehicles being available for sale to the general public by 2025. These vehicles will bring together a number of technologies related to data capture, sensors, cameras, radar, lidar (laser radar), and global positioning systems (GPS).

Be prepared for this transportation revolution. The question isn’t whether these vehicles will be part of our daily lives, but when they will become our main transportation mode.

  • Martin Thibault

    Martin is responsible for nearly 400 professionals and engineers specialized in transportation.

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