Feds test vehicle-to-vehicle safety net
Suppliers seek opportunities to prevent accidents
This month, the industry will start finding out whether the Next Big Thing in safety is vehicle-to-vehicle communications.
In Ann Arbor, Mich., a consortium of automakers, suppliers, federal officials and academics are preparing to launch a fleet of 3,000 vehicles equipped with transmitters that will broadcast their locations to one another.
If two vehicles are on a collision course, the drivers will be warned to hit the brakes.
If this two-way communications system works properly, perhaps as many as 80 percent of nonalcohol-related accidents could be mitigated or avoided, says Ron Medford, deputy administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Will federal regulators mandate vehicle-to-vehicle communications? "What we do next depends on what we find," Medford said. "It's too early to speculate."
The U.S. Department of Transportation is sponsoring the test.
Eight automakers are contributing eight vehicles apiece equipped with transmitters, receivers and onboard warning systems to alert motorists to impending collisions.
Hundreds of other cars and trucks will be equipped with aftermarket transmitters and receivers, to see whether vehicles can be retrofitted successfully.
Still other vehicles will be equipped with transmitters but no receivers. Those vehicles will broadcast their locations to provide a better test of the fully equipped vehicles.
Ford’s Mike Shulman: The new technology would be cheaper than a radar-based system.
Works like wi-fi
The transmitters, which work a bit like wi-fi, will have a range of 300 meters or so. The primary suppliers of the gear will be Denso Corp. and Savari Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif.
Denso appears nicely positioned to profit from the adoption of the technology. The Japanese supplier has worked on the technology with Ford Motor Co. since 2002, says Mike Shulman, a technical leader in Ford's vehicle-to-vehicle communications research.
"We have the longest history with Denso," he said, "but we wanted to use more than one supplier. We asked multiple suppliers to implement it. This kind of work is going on around the world."
While it's too early to assess the production cost of such a system, Shulman says it would be cheaper than a radar-based collision avoidance system. Radar or cameras sense an impending collision and warn the driver or brake automatically.
Suppliers have estimated that a fairly sophisticated next-generation radar-and-camera collision avoidance system on a compact car might cost $200 to $250 or so.
By contrast, a vehicle-to-vehicle transmitter-based system might cost a bit more than $50 or so, Shulman estimates. So a vehicle-to-vehicle communications system -- which doesn't need radar -- would enjoy a big price advantage.
Vehicle-to-vehicle transmitters are effective only when a significant number of vehicles on the road carry the devices.
So there's a catch: It will be a long time before most new vehicles are equipped with transmitters and receivers. And the Feds aren't likely to require existing vehicles to be retrofitted.
"That's not what we contemplate," NHTSA's Medford said.
So a belt-and-suspenders approach might work best. Cars could be equipped with radar-based collision avoidance systems now, for an immediate safety upgrade. Meanwhile, vehicle-to-vehicle communications could be phased in over the next decade or so to provide an additional margin of safety.
In fact, the business case for vehicle-to-vehicle communications may turn out to be the thorniest question for the auto industry, says Roger Berg, Denso's vice president of wireless technology, based in Vista, Calif.
Berg says studies have shown that motorists would start getting some benefit from the system when 3 to 5 percent of vehicles were equipped.
"Most of the technology questions have been solved," Berg said. But without a federal mandate, "the business case still needs more evaluation. We are working on that."
You can reach David Sedgwick at firstname.lastname@example.org.