Co-operative vehicles – a safer option

Guest blogger
Manager of Advanced Technologies & Research, MIRA

A Chartered Engineer and graduate of Imperial College, Heriot Watt University and Henley Management College, Anthony is responsible for delivering MIRA’s expanding portfolio of strategic research programmes focussed on low carbon and intelligent mobility technologies. He was also formerly a director of innovITS, the UK National Centre of Excellence in Telematics and chairman of the European Car Aerodynamics Research Association.

In my previous blog I wrote about the connected car from the perspective of the smartphone, talking about how current smartphone technology and emerging connectivity solutions between smartphones and vehicles are opening up a whole new innovation eco system for mobile smart-apps. Smartphone connected-vehicle applications currently tend to focus on providing mobility information to improve the journey experience, but last week I was starkly reminded of the importance of two other areas of connected car research which are closely linked to each other – safety and congestion.

Last month (on 19 July) after slowing to a virtual stop in the middle lane of the M40, a woman was tragically killed when her vehicle was struck by another car travelling at speed. It was reported that the driver had apparently failed to notice the stationary vehicle in front, with the ensuing collision resulting in the closure of the motorway for over six hours. There is a history of very serious traffic accidents that have occurred due to stationary motorway traffic, which have resulted in multiple deaths.

Thankfully such serious incidents are relatively rare but they do serve as a reminder of the high price we still pay for road transport – in terms of the human lives that are lost and the economic cost of travel delays that result from congestion on a daily basis. By continuing to design and develop new intelligent transport technologies, we can hopefully help to eliviate these problems.

Significant strides have already been made with intelligent vehicles that incorporate active safety systems to assist the driver. Most recently these have evolved into systems that will actually stop a vehicle autonomously, for example Ford’s Active City Stop and Volvo’s City Safety systems. But if such intelligent vehicles could co-operate with each other as well as the roadside infrastructure around them then the possibilities for improving safety and congestion are seemingly endless. This potential is leading to the development of a new group of technologies that will support drivers known as ‘co-operative intelligent vehicle technologies’.

In order to realise this potential, researchers including major automakers and governments are working on new vehicle to vehicle (V2V) and vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) communications systems. Equipped with such systems, cars can send each other alerts on potential traffic hazards such as stationary vehicles ahead in time for either the driver or an on-board active safety system to react.

The key to achieving the widespread introduction of such co-operative systems is new types of communication networks and communication standards. Standards such as these must meet the requirements of communicating safety critical data between high speed vehicles and infrastructure – 802.11p, which will uses dedicated short range communication (DSRC) channels, is a new standard specifically designed for these new intelligent vehicle applications. 

Intelligent vehicles that communicate with each other via embedded equipment will take some time to permeate the transport system. We will need to equip this communications technology to a significant percentage of vehicles before we start to see any benefit. However, this can lead to the problem: how do we generate a business case that will allow car companies to invest in developing the advanced embedded vehicle technologies? The answer to this is that V2V and V2I communication is not a one-size-fits-all technology and there are other technologies that can help accelerate deployment in to the existing vehicle fleet. This is where the smartphones and other portable devices have a role to play, by utilising their GPS and wireless communications capabilities to inform drivers about the location and movement of other vehicles (and pedestrians too), effectively turning existing vehicles into intelligent ones that can co-operate with each other.

The potential for co-operation between intelligent vehicles and advanced traffic management systems also offers the opportunity to significantly improve the way that traffic flows are managed by developing sophisticated control algorithms which can make use of these new sources of data and the massive computing power that’s available to us today.

One area of research we are working on at MIRA in conjunction with Coventry University is developing novel traffic control algorithms which will improve the safety and efficiency of a system of vehicles, when only a small percentage of the vehicles in this system are equipped with this co-operative level of technology. The idea behind this research is born out of the reverse of the traffic congestion wave problem that can plague motorway driving – where micro level instability (sudden vehicle braking) creates a macro level effect (congestion). 

By seeking to apply some level of control to a few ‘intelligent vehicles’  using these novel algorithms (i.e. micro level control) we will be able to achieve a beneficial macro level improvement (e.g. smoother traffic flow). This work is in its early stages but the results from our simulator work are currently looking very promising.

Sadly co-operating intelligent vehicle technologies were not available to save the life of the driver on the M40, but tragic events such as this remind me that the groundbreaking vehicle technology research that’s being carried out at MIRA will soon help to save lives and improve the journeys of millions of people in the future.