Front-seat driver

A German consortium is developing a system that allows vehicles to communicate among themselves to alert drivers to potential collisions. Siobhan Wagner explains

A technology that allows vehicles to communicate with each other and warn drivers about potential collisions could be installed in all cars within the next 10 years, its developers hope.

The system uses a microprocessor, a GPS receiver and a wireless LAN module to exchange data such as location, speed, acceleration and road conditions with cars within a 500m range outside the city and 100m inside. Drivers receive warnings and information through images on an in-car display, alerting beeps, flashing lights or seat vibrations.

The technology comes from the German Car-2-Car consortium, which includes GM’s Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) project. A prototype of the technology is now being demonstrated in GM vehicles.

A member of the consortium, Horst Wieker, from the telecommunications department at the University of Applied Sciences in Saarbruck, Germany, said his group decided to use a wireless rather than mobile network for the system because it was faster. ‘The data moves among vehicles in milliseconds,’ he said.

On a test day for the technology on the track at GM’s facilities in Bedfordshire, the system proved it can exchange data quickly, but developers need to work out several software kinks before it can be considered for commercial use.

Apart from the technical challenges, the team must also persuade governments to agree on a common, free wireless network on which the system can run. ‘The only way this will work is if there are no operating costs for the driver,’ said Wieker.

V2V uses established technology that is relatively inexpensive. Andrew Marshall, director of technology communications for GM Europe said while some cars are equipped with complex, expensive systems such as radar-based sensors connected with speed control devices or sensors to detect objects in a car’s blind spot, V2V will be cheap and easy enough to install in every car.

Drive safely: the system uses a microprocessor, a GPS receiver and a wireless LAN to exchange data such as speed, location and acceleration

However, he admitted, unlike current sensing technology, the system will need to be installed in every car on the road to work most efficiently.

Many of the warning devices in a vehicle are fairly easy to interpret. For example, when one is in danger of hitting a vehicle ahead, an image of a car colliding into the back of another will appear on a small screen on the steering wheel or on the GPS navigation screen on the dashboard, depending on the design. The driver will also hear a fast-paced beep and feel the seat vibrate, while the tail lights of the car ahead will flash rapidly.

Interpreting some of the signals was tricky for some people during tests. When one driver turned on his indicator to pull in front of a car in the next lane, a light-emitting diode in the side-view mirror was activated, a beep was heard and finally the driver’s seat shook. While this was supposed to indicate that a vehicle was in the driver’s blind spot, the driver mistook the shaking seat to mean it was safe to pass. If not for a warning from a passenger, a collision could have occurred.

Drivers’ safety is a motivating factor behind systems such as V2V. However, the developers say they are concerned about the privacy issues surrounding these systems.

Bruno Praunsmandel, engineering group manager at GM Europe, said a special group in the consortium is working on the security aspects of the system. ‘We have to make all these communications anonymous so that the police cannot tap in and create a ‘Big Brother’ watching you,’ he said. ‘We also have to make the system safe so no hackers can get in.’

He said without security measures, hacking could create similar havoc to that of children on a bridge throwing stones at cars on the motorway.

‘In the future you could see kids standing on a bridge with a laptop creating full brakes on the highway. Just imagine what could happen,’ he said. ‘We have to make sure the system is safe enough so that cannot be possible.’

At the end of the year, the consortium plans a four-year project that will install these systems on 500 vehicles in the Frankfurt area.