How Connectivity Is Changing the Way We Drive

We may be years away from gridlock-free highways, but the steps being taken towards a vehicle-to-vehicle reality are already impacting the way we drive.
February 23, 2017, 11:11pm

Last month, the National Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published a proposed rule that would require vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication technology to be installed in all new cars. Put simply, the rule would mandate that cars be equipped with dedicated short-range communications devices to send and receive basic safety messages via short-wave radio. These devices would communicate things like speed, direction, location, and braking status in order to warn drivers about—and help them avoid—potential car crashes. If all goes according to plan, the rule will be put into effect in 2019, meaning all new cars would have to comply by 2023.

While the regulation is a substantial step forward in the move towards a fully connected driving experience, those following the issue closely know the decision was a long time coming. As Forbes notes, the conversation around this specific proposed plan has been going on for over two years. In that time, we've seen more and more car manufacturers, tech innovators, and data experts join the conversation about the future of mobility. Fully functional self-driving cars have hit the road. Two companies have successfully piloted driverless truck platoons. And manufacturers like Ford are already simulating cities where vehicles, buildings, and mass transit are constantly communicating with each other in a fluid ballet that would take the driver out of the equation, abolish traffic, and create seamless, accident-free commutes. While we may be years away from gridlock-less freeways, the steps being taken towards a V2V and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) reality are already drastically impacting the way we drive.

Telematics, or the convergence of telecommunications and information processing, first hit the vehicle market back in 1996 when General Motors introduced OnStar. The device, which included a modem, GPS, a backup battery, and various sensors, was mounted in the back of the vehicle, and then connected to a roof-mounted antenna. If the vehicle's sensors detected an accident, the device would contact OnStar's call center to signal a crash and report the vehicle's location. OnStar would then notify an emergency service and contact the vehicle to check on its occupants until help arrived. Over the years, OnStar's service grew to include navigation technology, roadside assistance, remote door unlocking, vehicle diagnostics, and infotainment like sports scores, weather, and traffic updates. Connectivity was paid for like a cell phone, with a monthly or yearly fee to keep the service running.

In OnStar's wake, telematics systems have gone from luxury items to practically standard in new vehicles, while simultaneously paving the way for third-party devices and apps that can work with or without a GPS receiver. Both Apple and Google have developed in-dash systems (CarPlay and Android Auto, respectively) that advertise consistent ecosystems to what you're already running on your phone. Ford's Sync system, and the many others that followed it, allow a driver to pair their smart phone with their car. In both models, the user is relying on their cellular network and data plan for connectivity. In turn, standalone mapping apps have begun to integrate crowd-sourced data, meaning users can report and update traffic information in real time, and then share it over mobile networks. Apps like Waze, which was acquired by Google in 2013, allows users to populate maps that with accident reports, police activity, gridlock, road closures, and gas prices. The app currently has over 50 million users worldwide.

While Waze's popularity indicates the power and usefulness of car connectivity, its model is by no means foolproof. In order for V2V and V2I communications to truly work, they need to be conducted on private networks, as public ones are too slow to communicate accurately in real time. While the Department of Transportation's newly proposed rule signals a step in the right direction, radio waves also lack the reliability needed for truly autonomous driving because they easily bounce off buildings and surfaces. The next step, according to automakers, is equipping vehicles with modems. Over the next five years, Ford alone will outfit 20 million cars with the technology, which will allow vehicle data to be exchanged wirelessly over the cloud.

Of course, how these new smart—but still manually driven—cars will co-exist with driverless vehicles and modem-less older cars is still a work in progress. Last month, a team of Swiss researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne became the first to successfully develop an algorithm that allows autonomous vehicles to merge with manually operated cars  equipped with V2V technology. The algorithm, which was road tested in October, signals another step forward in the EU's plan to begin integrating autonomous vehicles in 2020-2030. In the US, Audi is already rolling out its first foray into V2I technology, which allows a vehicle to communicate with traffic signals and provide drivers with information about when a light will turn, thus "relieving the anxiety of waiting," says Audi general manager of connected vehicles Pom Malhorta. Still, the challenges facing car connectivity are popping up often. Just this week, Kaspersky Lab revealed that nine different connected car apps are using unencrypted usernames and passwords, as well as vehicle VIN numbers, in plaintext .xml files within the devices they run on. In other words, if a phone running one of these apps was rooted by a hacker, a car could be easily unlocked—and possibly even started—without the owner's consent.

As we continue to adopt and integrate connectivity into our driving experience, the question of safety seems to come up again and again—safety in regards to data sharing, safety in regards to autonomous braking, and safety in regards to using complex infotainment systems while operating a vehicle. Experts seem to agree that technology will eliminate these concerns as time goes on and systems advance. In the meantime, though, technology has turned driving into an ever-evolving and wildly varied practice depending on the vehicle you're in. And that disconnect is only likely to get bigger in the coming years.

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