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Test of Wi-Fi-connected cars poised to begin

By Alisa Priddle, Detroit Free Press –

DETROIT — Motorists in Ann Arbor, Mich., have a chance to change the future of the auto industry and significantly reduce fatalities from car accidents.

A portion of the city will be the setting for the world’s largest field trial to test the ability of cars to talk to one another and their surroundings to prevent accidents.

Wireless devices will be installed in the vehicles of almost 3,000 people who regularly drive in northwest Ann Arbor. Wi-Fi access also will connect buses, commercial trucks, traffic lights and road signs to transmit and receive data 10 times a second about every participating vehicle’s location, speed and direction in a bid to keep them from colliding.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was in Ann Arbor on Tuesday to mark the launch of the $25 million safety project, overseen by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute in partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“Today is a groundbreaking day for American innovation,” LaHood said.

UM’s Transportation Research Institute has 3,500 volunteers so far and only needs 2,865, said director Peter Sweatman. Chosen participants must have wireless devices installed in their vehicles. The first 500 connected vehicles hit the road three weeks ago, and in October the full fleet will be in operation.

The project will gather data for a full year and is expected to result in future safety regulations mandating wireless connectivity by 2020 if the results show this to be the next frontier in drastically reducing traffic fatalities.

Last year, 32,310 people died in the U.S. in traffic accidents. LaHood said vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity could prevent or reduce the severity of up to 80 percent of crashes.

LaHood said the technology can successfully warn drivers of potential hazards ahead such as the sudden braking of a car two vehicles ahead or a speeding car hidden by a curve.

One-third of car fatalities are intersection collisions, said Michael Shulman, a Ford manager who has advised the project.

Today’s cars have sensors and lasers to detect potential danger, but they are limited in the distance they can see. Wireless updates provide a broader overview of what is happening on the road.

“The field of view you need is just too great for sensors and radars that are already in production,” Shulman said. “This acts like a vigilant passenger. If you make a mistake, you get a warning,”

LaHood said the technology has great promise, but would not publicly commit to a timeframe for legislation mandating wireless connectivity. He did say the budget will be there if it is deemed a safety priority.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said there also is an opportunity to save money by replacing aging infrastructure with smarter design that may include fewer lanes, for example.

The participating car companies see wireless connectivity as a relatively low-cost and realistic solution.

“NHTSA wants regulations on this,” said Ford’s Shulman, who expects a decision on regulations by the end of next year. The first regulations mandating use of this technology could take effect in the 2018 to 2020 time frame, he said.

Much of the basic legwork has been done by a collaboration of General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Volkswagen, Hyundai/Kia and Mercedes-Benz, as well as suppliers who have worked on the project for a year.

Each automaker also has responsibility for individual areas of research.

Jim Keller of Honda said they looked at positioning of vehicles in lanes and when to warn a driver of a problem. Honda also is studying how to manage having so many vehicles talking to each other all at once and how the messages can be prioritized.

Nissan is working on encryption and other security measures, said Andy Christensen, senior manager of technology planning.

Companies like Ford are looking at standards governing the language the vehicles speak.

Hyundai has equipped a fleet of Sonatas to contribute.

“It is important for all automakers to be collaborative on this because it only works if all are communicating,” said Carla Bailo, senior vice president of R&D Americas at Nissan North America.

“It’s more efficient because it doesn’t require sensors all over the car and it comes all in one package,” Bailo said of the wireless technology.

Companies like Cohda Wireless of Australia are working on aftermarket units as well to be able to eventually equip all vehicles, said CEO Paul Gray. His wireless units are in about half the vehicles in the field study. He also is involved in similar, but smaller studies in Germany, France and Australia.

“You really have an affordable solution that can go on any car,” said consultant David McNamara of Technology Solutions in Saline, Mich. “The average person has to be able to afford it.”

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