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GM boffin here to lay foundations for future car-to-car communications technology

General Motors logo6 May 2008

ONE of the world’s leading authorities in vehicle communications systems is in Australia to ensure we are compatible with crash prevention developments that could be in the majority of new cars within a decade.

Senior researcher of General Motors’ wireless systems and technology group in the US, Donald Grimm, told GoAuto that one of the main reasons for his visit was to talk to federal authorities about reserving the 5.9GHz band that is becoming the standard for so-called Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC).

Without approval to use this radio band for what GM calls vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications, Australia could be out of step with the rest of the world when this technology becomes commonplace in the not too distant future.

V2V communication allows cars within 300 metres to “talk” to one another, indicating where they are on the road, what direction and speed they are going and therefore if they are in danger of colliding.

They then alert drivers through chimes, visual icons or seat vibrations and, in cars fitted with automated braking systems (as with many modern cruise controls), can even bring the car to a safe stop and avoid a crash if the driver does not respond fully in time.

For example, in an emergency stop, when the car registers it is in danger of being rear-ended, it flashes its tail-lights rapidly. At the same time, the driver of the approaching car will get alerts in time to perform a braking or avoidance manoeuvre.

 center imageThe required frequency has been allocated in the US and recently in Europe, as well as Japan, and Mr Grimm and his colleagues at Holden are discussing the allocation with bodies including the Australian Citizens Radio Monitors (ACRM), which provides emergency and safety monitoring, the local industry group of spectrum users, and Queensland’s Department of Main Roads, which interestingly is very proactive in the writing of safety applications.

“What we’re trying to do here is pursue some frequency allocation around the same band that would help line up with the activities in the US, Europe and Japan,” Mr Grimm told GoAuto.

“We’ve been giving them background of what activities we’re doing and what we think the benefits of these systems are – just get them up to date with the current technology. Hopefully we can have some influence with the spectrum availability.” There is no problem yet with the allocation, but the discussions are at an early phase and there is apparently considerable work and testing to be done before it is decided.

Mr Grimm said that the US government had allocated the 5.9GHz frequency for just this sort of public safety use and Europe recently allocated a smaller but overlapping spectrum that provides a good base for the global deployment of the technology.

He said the automotive industry is working together to ensure that DSRC is common among all vehicles because its success is dependant on the widespread use of this vital new crash-avoidance technology.

GM’s simple V2V system combines existing and proven technologies and will therefore cost “less than $200”, said Mr Grimm. He expects that V2V systems will be fitted to most cars within five to 10 years.

“Commonality is a key and we are working with the other automakers,” he said. “In the US there is a consortium that was founded by Ford and GM to do pre-competitive research, and within that are a number of active projects, including vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I), and there are five automakers participating in that project – Ford, GM, Toyota, Honda and Daimler.

“This group attends the Society of Automotive Engineers standards group to participate in the inter-operability standard and the government is also part of this consortium.” He said there is a similar consortium operating in Europe and the two groups work closely together, along with Japan, which is “pretty advanced in deploying V2I applications”.

Of course, Holden engineers will have to be familiar with the systems because of it not only builds cars here for Australia, but the US, the Middle East and other markets.

V2V employs a car’s GPS system to identify its location and uses the short-range radio signal to share information with all the other cars in its vicinity. Cars can then communicate directly with one another like a wireless computer network rather than by sending information back into space via the GPS, which would be critically slower and would also overburden the satellite network.

The only equipment needed – apart from a sat-nav – is an antenna, a single sensor and a transceiver.

This simple and cheap technology operates independently of any roadside systems (V2I) being developed globally and will help to avoid a vast number of common crash situations such as rear-ending, cars coming out of blind side streets and changing lanes into the path of another vehicle.

It could replace a multitude of current and expensive safety systems such as adaptive cruise control, blind-spot detectors and lane-change detectors, which are limited to expensive luxury cars. GM claims its system is so simple and cheap it should be able to be fitted to all cars – and even bicycles.

As well as being cheap to install in new cars, the company says the systems can easily be retro-fitted to existing cars with little more trouble than installing a SatNav, although without some of the more advanced features such as seat vibration alerts. It will also work with popular over the counter GPS systems and GM would encourage the development of after-market systems.

According to the World Health Organisation, road accidents are responsible for about 1.2 million deaths and 50 million injuries a year, but GM – which has a goal to build “cars that don’t crash” – believes that V2V systems could reduce those numbers dramatically.

Of course, with growing sophistication of active control systems, it seems that the concept of cars that drive themselves is no longer in the realm of science fiction. However, while total control is still beyond the dreams – or nightmares – of even the most optimistic development engineers, it seems more than possible that we could in the foreseeable future be able to sit back and read the paper while our car drives itself on freeways.

And, if that freaks you out, at least consider the possibility that, with computers ensuring the car cannot collide, it should allow freeway speeds to be much higher. How about a five-hour drive from Sydney to Melbourne? Now that would really be something.

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