Highways with no traffic jams, only rare accidents on the streets - a new technology could help keep traffic moving and save lives. But to reach that goal, automakers and policy-makers have to work together.
The car of the future will know where the next patch of ice lies on the street, whether there's a traffic jam behind the next curve, or whether rain showers are looming up ahead. It will alert the driver immediately about an oncoming danger - faster and more accurately than assistance programs or radio alerts have done up to now. But that kind of system can only work if the technology such as that presented in Frankfurt last week is actually built into cars, traffic signs and lights, and construction site barricades. This Car-to-X technology relies on wireless Internet connectivity via the UMTS mobile cellular systems.
Joint research and the same technology
Researchers have been studying how to improve traffic efficiency and security in a project called "Safe and Intelligent Mobility - Test Field Germany" (SIMTD for "Sichere und Intelligente Mobilität - Testfeld Deutschland") since 2009.
Numerous automakers and suppliers in Germany are taking part in the study, as well as communications companies, research institutes, universities and several government ministries, which are financially supporting the project. In 2012, producers sent a fleet of vehicles onto the street to test the Car-to-X technology under real conditions. One hundred and twenty cars and three motorcycles covered 1.6 million kilometers, collecting and supplying data, all using the same technology - a central prerequisite for developing an efficient system. Volkswagen, BMW, Mercedes, Opel and Ford worked together with suppliers such as Bosch and Deutsche Telekom on the system.
Sensors and networks
Sensors on automobiles and at the side of the street continuously send data about traffic flow and weather via wireless networks to a control station, where it is evaluated, and then sent back to the automobiles. The risk of an accident due to traffic backed up in a curve can be reduced to a minimum this way because the car computer can warn the driver ahead of time. Slowed or stalled cars automatically transmit their data to the cars behind them.
The technology also enables more economical driving. Michael Schreckenberg, a physicist and traffic researcher at the University of Duisburg-Essen, told Deutsche Welle, "The technology makes it possible to communicate with traffic lights - to find out how long they will stay red so that drivers can adjust their speed accordingly."
Weather services likewise communicate with the system, warning drivers of oncoming patches of fog or other inclement conditions.
Companies and policy-makers must work together
Traffic researcher Schreckenberg said Car-to-X technology will be commonplace in the future, but it likely won't be introduced to the public for another 12 to 15 years. Currently, automakers are struggling to sell their cars, so investing in new technology is a hindrance more than anything. And while automakers and the government would have to jointly invest in the new technology, Schreckenberg said, each is waiting for the other to make the first move.
Automakers would have to install the technology in the vehicles, while state authorities would have to equip street signs and lights with sensors. But it's clear that the technology would save billions more in euros than it would cost - provided that enough drivers were using the Car-to-X system so that sufficient data could be collected to make it worthwhile.
The luxury automaker Mercedes is moving forward nevertheless, and intends to install the new safety technology into selected models this year - a step which Schreckenberg describes as courageous.
A pioneer or a hindrance?
Burkhard Milke, director of technical development at automaker Opel, finds Mercedes' venture problematic. "All the advantages that SIMTD offers - that drivers can communicate with traffic lights or road construction sites - are not available in the Mercedes solution," he says. That's because communication will only occur between Mercedes vehicles, without being supplemented by data from the traffic infrastructure.
In addition, Milke believes that developing a proprietary system will not contribute to a comprehensive Car-to-X service: "The first step in introducing the system should not impede the second step, which is getting it to become a widespread standard."
Schreckenberg admits that parallel development could slow down progress, but the project needs trailblazers to get it off the ground and show its effectiveness. He argues that Car-to-X technology will only convince consumers once they use it.
Learning from swarm behavior
While automakers and policy-makers are waiting to see who moves first, Schreckenberg is taking the next step into the future at his lab at the University of Duisburg-Essen. "We are trying to simulate the swarming behavior of animals in a traffic situation by linking up vehicles via a [computer] cloud," he explains. That leads to simultaneous reactions: simultaneous acceleration, lane-changing or braking.
If just 5 percent of vehicles had this technology, it could result in a marked improvement which would affect all road users. Schreckenberg points out that animals had taken thousands of years to optimize their behavior. This project was trying to simulate that cooperative behavior on the roads: "Animals work together for the good of their community. We car drivers unfortunately don't do that."