Cars talking to cars, and sometimes drivers too
Communications giant Qualcomm has teamed up with Ford Motor Company and Panasonic to develop C-V2X, a communications system that they hope will become a major player in automotive technology.
V2X stands for Vehicle To Anything, and is a system designed to let smart cars talk to each other, and also talk to smart street furniture such as traffic lights and traffic flow monitors. All the motor manufacturers are busily building V2X into their production plans.
Proponents of smart cities have long argued that urban traffic flows could be greatly improved if the traffic light systems could better detect and respond to the oncoming traffic. Likewise, if vehicles were able to find out, using V2X, how long before the upcoming traffic lights changed to green, they could adjust their speed and arrive at the lights at the optimum time. This would be more efficient than speeding up and slowing down which wastes both time and fuel.
Another way traffic flows can be improved is if vehicles drove very much closer together, which not only allows more cars on the road, and gets more cars through bottleneck junctions in a shorter period of time, but also has eco-benefits because the cars are more fuel-efficient as a result of slip-streaming. Humans could not possibly drive nose-to-tail with just a few inches of separation, our reactions are simply not fast enough, but smart cars could achieve it, provided the lead car can communicate with the cars behind it, using V2X, to give them instructions on when to brake, and when to speed up.
This is why V2X is an important development. The Qualcomm, Ford, Panasonic alliance will be testing its C-V2X technology later this year in Denver, Colorado, on the Interstate I70 Mountain Corridor, with the support of the Colorado Department Of Transport. As with all these vehicle technology projects, I question the use of the word "testing". Too often it means ironing out the bugs and finding out what doesn't work, and that has no place on public roads where other road users become non-consenting elements of a potentially dangerous testing process.
Whilst the arguments for V2X technology sound all well and good, we should ask are they solving the right problem? If our planet is choking, if our cities are overcrowded with too many vehicles, is it the correct solution to find more ways to squeeze more vehicles and faster-moving vehicles into the same space? Shouldn't we be looking at ways to instead reduce our dependence upon the car, improve bus and train services, or better still, ask ourselves if we really need millions of people travelling into hub cities each day, and all at roughly the same time?
V2X has a lot of potential though. The short range nature of it means that it could very usefully transmit localised information about speed limits, for example. We all know how easy it is to miss signs and not be certain what the speed limit is, and not be sure if we are in a 40 zone, or a 30. Many Satnavs have road speed limits wired in, and can alert the driver if you exceed them, but it relies on the satnav being up to date and accurate. Misinformation from a satnav would be no defence against a speeding ticket. Think how much better it would be if each section of road could reliably transmit the correct and verified speed limit to your car automatically. Other potential uses for V2X would be to transmit real-time information about congestion or diversions ahead, and in sufficient detail for satnavs to calculate alternate routes, to indicate parking availability, and so on.
Tesla is famous for its high-tech cars with features such as a cruise control which it misleadingly calls "AutoPilot". One of the latest changes to the Tesla software is that if the car detects that the driver is not holding the steering, it will nag the driver at 30 second intervals, a voice telling them to put their hands back on the wheel. Getting the right interval for a human computer interaction is difficult. If the interval is too long, it increases the risk of an accident. If it is too short, it becomes an annoyance and the driver will learn to ignore it.
I noticed that this latest patch is numbered 2018.21.9. That's a lot of versions and updates. If I had to take my regular car back to the dealer once a fortnight for safety updates and fixes, I think I'd worry that they'd rushed it to market rather too quickly.
28th June 2018
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