Communicating with cars

3 min read

UCLA computer science professor Mario Gerla and researcher Giovanni Pau aim to turn cars into computer nodes.

UCLA computer science professor Mario Gerla and researcher Giovanni Pau aim to turn cars into computer nodes, creating a mobile computer network.

Computers already have made their way out from under the bonnet and into the passenger space with systems such as GPS navigation and services that can unlock a car by satellite. And wireless LAN capability will soon be installed by car manufacturers to make driving safer.

‘We have all of these computer devices as integrated systems inside our cars,’ Gerla said. ‘It's time to extend that concept. Computers are already being installed in many vehicles, and wireless capability will soon follow, so a mobile network deployment would only require the relatively low-cost addition of sensors to the vehicle's roof and bumpers and configuring the computer with new 'mobile' applications.’

The team at UCLA Engineering's Network Research Lab, led by Gerla, is looking at reinventing cars and networks based on the principles of a wireless, mobile ad-hoc networking platform, or MANET. The MANET platform allows moving vehicles within a range of 100 to 300 metres of each other to connect and, car by car, create a network with a wide range. As cars fall out of range and drop out of the network, other node-equipped cars can join in to receive or send signals.

‘We use standard radio protocols such as Digital Short Range Communication, or DSRC, combined with wireless LAN technology to create networks between vehicles equipped with onboard sensing devices,’ Pau said. ‘These devices can gather safety-related information, as well as other complex multimedia data, such as video. The most essential aspect of this network is that it is not subject to memory, processing, storage and energy limitations like traditional sensor networks. It relies on the resources of the vehicle itself, along with those vehicles around it.’

Currently, gaining access to the Internet or to a cellular phone system requires that a tower or other stationary access point be within range. The mobile network bypasses this set up by connecting vehicles to one another until, eventually, everyone is connected to everyone else and a mobile Internet is created. Access to the fixed Internet can then be obtained indirectly, through any of the mobile Internet vehicles.

While similar to a wireless local area network (WLAN), a mobile network has to perform tasks far more complicated than connecting one wireless computer to another - it must be able to distinguish between multiple moving vehicles (nodes), determine the signal strength emanating from each one, gauge its speed, who might have priority, such as a police car or fire engine, and what kind of data is being exchanged, like voice, data or video - all at the same time.

UCLA engineering professor Mario Gerla (front) and researcher Giovanni Pau.

The benefits of this type of network are broad, Gerla said. Day-to-day driving could be safer and more convenient - on crowded freeways in Southern California, accidents could be prevented if drivers have access to pertinent, real-time information about collisions or changes in traffic patterns ahead.

Drivers would have access to information about dangers within or near their mobile network, such as the presence of smoke from a forest fire or radiation from a dirty bomb. Just one vehicle would need to be equipped with the detection device in order for other vehicles in the network to be aware of the threat.

The benefits of a mobile network are already being explored by the California Department of Transportation in conjunction with Gerla's team. Gerla and Pau are working with CalTrans to develop both the vehicle sensors that detect highway problems - such as large potholes - and the mobile network that would transmit this information instantly. With immediate access to roadway information, CalTrans officials would be better equipped to make decisions about where and in what priority to make repairs, saving crews time and energy and saving taxpayers money.

Building a collaborative, ubiquitous network out of new cars, however, is not an easy task, Gerla said. Consumers will need to play a major role in the development of car-to-car networks, and there is one major hurdle facing widespread adoption: privacy concerns surrounding turning a car into part of a larger network. Not every driver will want to share the status or contents of their system, no matter how benign the data may be.

For this reason, it is expected that the first mobile networks will be implemented in emergency response vehicles such as police cars, ambulances and hazardous materials response units.
Implementation also will require the cooperation of car manufacturers.

Efforts have already begun, with Connected Vehicle Trade Association in the US and organisations such as the Car2Car Communication Consortium in Europe, as well as ongoing efforts in Japan.

‘Consumer demand will ultimately drive rapid adoption past the point of concern over privacy,’ Gerla said. ‘If I had to make a guess, I would expect networked cars to appear on the market in about five years. Ultimately, the advantages far outweigh the concerns.’

For more information on UCLA Engineering's Network Research Lab, visit