Imagine a world where your car listens to what other cars are saying about road conditions and tells the cars behind you what’s happening up ahead.
This technology might sound a little far-fetched right now, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants to know your input on it. Manufacturers might be required to implement vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) crash avoidance technology on new vehicles as soon as 2020.
The problem that V2V aims to solve is the No. 1 cause of accidents: driver error. I recently wrote about the many stats that indicate that we (humans) tend to be dangerous drivers. In 2014, more than 3,000 people were killed in distracted driving accidents alone, not to mention tens of thousands more in alcohol-related crashes. The premise behind V2V is that no matter what mechanical safety systems we use, drivers will still cause accidents if they fail to slam on the brakes quickly enough. Anti-lock brakes won’t help if someone is about to t-bone you and you can’t see them coming.
Practically speaking, with V2V, cars can listen to other cars to determine if there is a potential hazard and warn the driver to take immediate action. Of note, V2V communications is a separate technology than highly-automated vehicles (fully autonomous vehicles). The former notifies human drivers to take action and the latter wholly operates the vehicle.
NHTSA has published a four-page summary, along with 327 pages of research on V2V communications. It’s packed with plenty of analysis into the technology, its costs, its adoption, various studies, and the anticipated reduction in automotive-related injuries and fatalities.
There is great promise with V2V communications, but also several areas of concern. First is the efficacy of it, second is the lack of infrastructure, and third is the overall cost. Let’s take a look at each.
On a non-technical level, would a V2V system be effective? Drivers today already are taught to check their blind spot, keep their hands at ten and two on the steering wheel, and always signal before changing lanes. Despite legally proving that we understand the rules of the road (passing your driver’s test), we still tend to make errors intentionally or not, resulting in more than 900,000 collisions on U.S. roads in 2014 alone.
The V2V communications system will potentially create pathways to expand into autonomous driving capabilities, but the NHTSA proposal doesn’t say so explicitly. The stated outcome of this crash-avoidance technology is to notify the driver to take immediate action. Frankly, I don’t believe one more beep, tone, flashing light, or vibration in the steering wheel will compel drivers to make the correct, split-second decision. I’m proof.
I have a radar detector, and anyone who has owned one will tell you that they pick up numerous false-positives. These false-positive alerts are triggered by driving in front of a store with automated doors and certain vehicles with their proprietary collision-avoidance tech onboard. These false-positive alerts chip away one by one from the driver’s trust in the $200 device sitting on their dashboard. Eventually, the driver no longer responds favorably when a Ka-band (a popular RF wavelength used in traffic enforcement) alert triggers because of the dozens of false alerts they’ve experienced in the past. Additional research is necessary to prevent V2V-enabled vehicles from responding to false-positives that erode the trust of the operators. That is, how will people respond when the false alerts compel drivers to take evasive action that makes them vulnerable to more accidents?
I see V2V communications offering the most value to drivers who endure hazardous weather conditions such dust storms and blizzards. Regardless, the V2V proposal genuinely tests the assumption that drivers only need to be made aware before an accident occurs, but I’m not able to find convincing evidence that this technology would address the actual causes of human error in a meaningful way, because it would depend on the driver to take action.
In essence, you can’t always trust people to make the right decision even if they are warned something bad might happen.
Currently, a proof-of-concept demonstrating the promise of the V2V technology doesn’t exist. We don’t yet understand the impact of dozens or hundreds of cars on the roadways all communicating with each other. Let’s dive deeper.
In the proposal, cars would need to communicate with each other over wireless signals, not unlike the wireless router in your house that delivers internet access all over your home. The problem with this medium is that it is prone to radio interference and attackers might want to compromise it for fun, profit or both. To support such a network of connected cars, we will need to equip cars with a cellular data connection. Our cell towers would all need to be upgraded to ensure there isn’t network congestion. And on top of that, we’d still have to develop and test a system for ensuring updates are delivered safely and securely for all vehicles.
If you don’t think your vehicle could be used as a proxy for other attacks, think again. Security cameras, digital video recorders (DVRs), and cloud-based thermostats were utilized to attack core services that operate the internet. On one hand, your vehicle might be able to alert you when you approach another too closely, on the other, your vehicle could be just another node in a botnet when they maintain high-speed data connectivity. It’s not a matter of “if,” but “when” these vulnerabilities all come together to introduce more security risks than benefits.
As a country, we would have to be willing to invest an inordinate amount of resources to ensure vehicles maintain reliable connectivity, while still making room for additional expansions in wireless infrastructure. Ultimately, every aspect of the V2V communications interface would need to be tested and proven in real-world conditions to ensure maximum security and reliability—and when issues are identified, deliver updates and patches to fix them regularly.
The estimates are rough, but NHTSA predicts between $1.1 and $6.4 billion per year to implement this initiative and gradually decrease to an annual $1.1 billion expenditure by 2058. Over the course of 40 years, the program would cost taxpayers and manufacturers an estimated $80 billion.
That $80 billion could be a relative bargain considering that damages involving all light-vehicle crashes totals about $274 billion annually. After 40 years of investment, the NHTSA proposal predicts we’d only reduce three percent of the automotive fatalities seen in 2014. The cost is a pretty big pill to swallow over the next four decades especially given the modest improvements in vehicle safety.
Here’s the better solution
We’re at a point where 33 automotive leaders and a handful of tech startups have made significant investments in autonomous driving. I’d contend that even though a driverless car is more difficult than adding a V2V warning system, this leap in technology will be what’s needed to dramatically improve automotive safety. Ridesharing has increased in popularity, and once autonomous vehicles become readily available, vehicle sales may decrease when people no longer desire vehicle ownership — especially when they realize the cost of ownership has increased.
In essence, I believe the pursuit for driving to go completely autonomous by entrepreneurs will outpace the speed (and cost) of automotive technology enhancements required by the U.S. government.
It may be possible that V2V-inspired technology may be developed voluntarily by manufacturers because of consumer demand. I would love for my brakes to react quicker than I do during my daily commute, but I’d love it even more if I didn’t have a commute. We all should work toward advancing meaningful developments in automotive safety and mobility, instead of merely ‘checking the box’ for one more beep or light that drivers will tune out. I don’t have much confidence that these standards would be adopted anytime soon.
In the meantime, I’m holding out for the federal autonomous driving standards to be finalized so we can take a giant leap toward a safer automotive world.
Image credit: NHTSA
Originally published on the Local Motors blog.