Communications Software

Australian Tech Lets Cars Talk for Safer Roads

Your car may be loaded with the latest in sat-nav, iPhone integration and skull-crushing bass but when it comes to talking to other cars and drivers around you, you’re still pretty much limited to the time-honoured horn, bird-flip and flying-V. Wouldn’t it be great if your car could help with those time-honoured traditions of intimidating – er, informing – other drivers by letting their cars and your cars work together?

You could ‘see’ around a blind corner to know when a car is coming down an upcoming cross street. Your car would be alerted if cars well ahead of you – even cars you can’t see – slammed on their brakes to avoid an obstacle in the road. You’d know about oncoming cars obscured by that huge truck you’re tempted to pass. You could even be alerted to changing road conditions and nearby hazards by sensors built into the roadway. It may sound like science fiction, but Paul Gray is helping make it happen sooner than you think.

The CEO of Australian wireless-technology provider Cohda Wireless – which in 2004 was spun out of the University of South Australia’s Institute for Telecommunications Research – Gray has this year chalked up numerous successes after his company recently signed deals that put its vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology into thousands of cars across North America and Europe.

Germany’s SimTD, France’s ScoreF, and Singapore’s ERP2 trials have all used Cohda technology, as has a US Department of Transportation (DoT) trial in Michigan that installed Cohda Technology in 1,500 of 2,800 vehicles being trialled, and was recently extended to include six motorcycles.

All are seeking to improve the information available to drivers to improve real-time decision making.

“There’s no doubt that cars are safer than they’ve ever been,” Gray says. “And yet, at the same time, the number of accidents is on the increase. To really make further steps to reduce the number of accidents and fatalities, it’s clear we need to do something to avoid the accidents altogether. Our goal is to create 360-degree awareness of the safety systems in your vehicle.”

Gray is all too happy to reel off the statistics: in Europe in 2008, for example, human error was a factor in 93% of accidents, causing 1.7 million injuries and 38,000 fatalities. The US, by contrast, saw 5.8 million accidents and 37,000 fatalities from road accidents, which are named as the leading cause of death in the 4-to-34-year-old age bracket; even non-accidental road congestion was blamed for 4.2 billion lost hours.

Improving this situation has become a cause célèbre for an automotive industry that thrives on innovation. And while it may seem counterintuitive to have the most technologically-advanced car makers in the world reaching out to the other side of the globe for a core technology, Cohda has grabbed and kept their attention with an 802.11p-compliant chipset. Paired with a super-sensitive receiver that has proven uncharacteristically robust in linking two or more vehicles, the chipset can easily have closing velocities of more than 200km/h.

Competing solutions tend to be built around off-the-shelf WiFi, which works well in static installations but tends to suffer when linking moving vehicles. Connection-orientated WiFi takes too long to establish connections and is susceptible to interference from changing landscapes, buildings or other vehicles.

“These all affect the performance of consumer-grade WiFi chips,” says Gray, “whereas we have robust performance at any speed. Up to several hundred kilometres an hour, you will still be getting robust wireless performance.”

Trials have shown that Cohda’s optimised wireless consistently outperforms WiFi in retaining a reliable enough connection to transmit the 10 status and position signals per second that a V2V-equipped vehicle produces. These range from GPS position updates to signals triggered by in-car systems. For example, a V2V-equipped car might warn neighbouring vehicles of stopped traffic if its brakes are applied quickly, an accident due to the activation of its airbags, or slippery roads if its anti-lock braking mechanism is activated.

Those signals are received by other V2V-equipped cars within range, then aggregated and processed using a Cohda-developed threat detection engine that projects the position of neighbouring vehicles in time and space to determine which pose a potential threat to the vehicle’s path.

The concept is collectively called Co-operative ITS (intelligent transport systems), and Cohda has been working with its partners to improve the system so that it becomes as regular a part of driving safety as seatbelts.

“A key part of that is not giving false alarms,” Gray says. “You should never hear from the system unless there’s a clear and present danger. If you’re driving in a safe manner and all the cars around you are driving well, you will never hear it.”

Since the integrity and timeliness of those signals could mean the difference between a deadly accident and a frightening but safe close call, car makers have actively courted Cohda to integrate its wireless expertise into their trials.

Last October Audi, BMW, Daimler, Ford, Honda, Opel, VW, Volvo and other automotive makers within the Car 2 Car Communication Consortium (C2CCC) signed a Memorandum of Understanding to start commercially offering V2V communications from 2016.

To ensure its place in the growing market, Cohda – also a C2CCC member – is opening European and US sales offices, and recently signed networking colossus Cisco Systems and chipset company NXP Semiconductors as strategic investors. The partnerships will help Cohda integrate its technology into automotive-ready V2V transceivers for the world market, with its MK2 WAVE-DSRC Radio in current trials and upgraded MK4 reference design soon to be launched.

“The automotive space has become a real sweet spot for us,” says Gray. “We’re really focused now as a company on getting those design wins into the mass market.”

Cohda’s work ties into the broader discussion about the evolving ‘Internet of Everything’, as Cisco calls it, in which everything from cars to road signs interacts wirelessly to create smart mesh networks that support a range of human activities.

It’s an idea that has piqued the interest of Transport for NSW, the road authority in Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, which maintains the country’s only technology-focused road safety research unit – the Centre for Road Safety (CRS) – and is also exploring the convergence of information systems and driver intention.

The organisation’s first trial of such a system came in 2009, when 120 vehicles were outfitted with systems, downloaded over the internet, which informed drivers when they exceeded the speed limit. That system alone was independently assessed to potentially reduce the number of fatal road crashes by 19%, says manager for road safety technology John Wall. He believes intelligent roadways will offer the unprecedented opportunity to make drivers better informed than ever about changing road conditions.

“Information about traffic and travel times is really accessible these days,” Wall says, “but if we start adding safety information to it – for example, the current weather and the crash history of the roads we are travelling on – we can start to make better-informed choices about the safest route to take.”

Other projects include a driver-fatigue system that can be monitored online by employers, and a recently-commenced V2V initiative linking 30 heavy trucks that regularly travel between Sydney and rural steel town Port Kembla, 93km away.

Wiring each vehicle’s transmission system into a range of vehicle status sensors will allow it to provide a rich array of status and hazard information to neighbouring vehicles – including, potentially, driver-fatigue signals that can warn you that the driver of an oncoming long-haul truck is having trouble keeping his eyes open.

V2V communications could also be extended to pedestrians. Imagine, for example, the lives that could be saved if smartphones continually emitted a V2V tracking signal that would be picked up by an oncoming vehicle, which could then start braking much earlier than a driver would.

The possibilities are limited only by the inputs that researchers are able to feed into the V2V ecosystem and the way they translate it into actionable information.

“The first control we put against risk is to eliminate the risk,” Wall says. “The internet can play a major role in eliminating that whole risk of travel entirely.”


David Braue is an award-winning technology journalist who has covered Australia's IT industry since 1995


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David Braue

David Braue is an award-winning technology journalist who has covered Australia's IT industry since 1995. His portfolio spans business, ICT, telecommunications and other areas, with a particular focus on Australia's world-leading national broadband network (NBN).

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