There's a lot of talk these days about connected cars; and a lot of confusion about what that term means.
Rightly so, for the term 'connected car' 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 satellite radio, for examples.
Most new vehicles offer at least some level of such connectivity.
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 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 par these 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. And Canada, which is committed to harmonized vehicle safety regulations between the two countries, is almost certain to follow suit.
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 2800 vehicles, has been under way in Ann Arbor, Michigan 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 lane-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.
There is also some confusion concerning the difference between "connected" and "autonomous" vehicles. While th two are connected, they are not the same.
While the connectivity features discussed here will enhance the levels of driver assistance available, they will still fall short of full autonomy – self-driving cars. They are, however, major stepping stones in that direction.