Car crash prevention technologies face huge challenges

Driver acceptance, costs, insurance, interoperability will test ubiquitous deployment of high-tech car crash tools

There is a serious move toward adding ever-more technology to cars in an effort to reduce accidents that take 32,000 human lives a year and cause some 2 million injuries.

The human toll is obvious but can high-tech automotive communications and sensor technologies - know collectively as vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technologies really change those statistics?   Many experts say they indeed can but they face a number of challenges according to a Government Accountability Office report on the technology this week. The US Department of Transportation says if widely deployed, V2V technologies could provide warnings to drivers in as much as 76% of potential multi-vehicle collisions involving at least one light vehicle, such as a passenger car.

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Crash avoidance technologies, which use sensors such as cameras and radar, can observe a vehicle's visible surroundings and issue warnings to the driver when certain types of collisions with other vehicles or obstacles appear to be imminent. These technologies also facilitate the sharing of data, such as vehicle speed and location, among vehicles to warn drivers of potential collisions, the GAO stated.

The GAO said efforts by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the automobile industry have focused on developing: 1) in-vehicle components such as hardware to facilitate communications among vehicles, 2) safety software applications to analyze data and identify potential collisions, 3) vehicle features that warn drivers, and 4) a national communication security system to ensure trust in the data transmitted among vehicles.

The GAO report defined a number of challenges to these high-tech tools for cars.  They include:

Security: A security system capable of detecting, reporting, and revoking the credentials of vehicles found to be sharing inaccurate  information will be needed to ensure trust in the V2V data transmitted  among vehicles. Final plans and policies for the V2V communication security system - including its technical framework and management structure - have not yet been developed and will need to be finalized prior to V2V technology deployment.  The GAO said 12 of the 21c experts it interviewed said the technical development of a V2V communication security system as a great or very great challenge to the deployment of V2V technologies.  One expert said that it is challenging to establish technical specifications for a system that attempts to maintain users ' privacy  while providing security for over-the-air transmission of data. Another expert told the GAO that a public key infrastructure system the size of the one  needed to support the nationwide deployment of V2V technologies has never been developed before; the sheer magnitude of the system will pose challenges to its development.

Spectrum arguments: In response to requirements in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in February 2013 that requested comments on allowing unlicensed devices to share the 5.9 GHz band of the radio-frequency spectrum that had been previously set aside for the use of applications such as V2V technologies. Although existing FCC regulations are designed to ensure that unlicensed devices do not cause interference, four automobile manufacturers and 16 experts we interviewed expressed concern or uncertainty about the potential effects of allowing unlicensed  devices to share the 5.9 GHz band. One automobile industry group said that its members are not opposed to opening the 5.9 GHz band for sharing but emphasized the importance of understanding the implications of doing so to ensure that it will not hinder critical V2V safety applications.

Deployment Levels: According to DOT, the safety benefits of V2V technologies will be maximized with near full deployment across the U.S. vehicle fleet. However, even if NHTSA pursues a rules requiring installation of these technologies in new vehicles, it could take a number of years until benefits are fully realized due to the rate of turnover of the fleet. According to one automobile manufacturer the GAO interviewed, given the rate of new vehicle sales, it can take up to 20 years for the entire U.S. vehicle fleet to turn over. Also, aftermarket devices that allow existing vehicles to be equipped with V2V devices could help speed deployment. However, three experts the GAO interviewed expressed concern that drivers may not see value in purchasing aftermarket devices, which could limit their adoption.

Driver response: The benefits of V2V technologies will also depend on how well drivers respond to warning messages. If drivers do not take appropriate action in response to warnings, then the benefits of V2V technologies could be reduced. For example, if drivers do not respond to warnings quickly enough due to distraction, impairment, or other reasons they may not be able to avoid a collision. Furthermore, if safety applications offer too many false warnings when no imminent threat exists, drivers could begin to ignore valid warnings.

Deployment of other safety technologies: The potential benefits solely attributable to V2V technologies will also depend on the market penetration and effectiveness of sensor-based crash avoidance technologies. These existing technologies are able to address some of the same crash scenarios as V2V safety applications and their market penetration is likely to increase in the future. While there are cases where V2V technologies can provide safety benefits where sensor-based crash avoidance technologies cannot such as around a curve or when detecting an unseen stopped carthere are some V2V technology collision scenarios that sensor-based crash avoidance technologies can also address.  For example, cameras and radar can be used to provide drivers with forward collision warnings or lane change warnings when another vehicle is in a blind spot.

No fault - Your fault: Six automobile manufacturers and 17 experts GAO interviewed expressed concern about the challenge posed by uncertainties related to potential liability in the event of a collision involving vehicles equipped with V2V  technologies. This challenge is demonstrated in a number of potential liability issues and questions that are unanswered at this time.  One automobile manufacturer said that because V2V technologies offer warnings that are based in part on data transmitted by other vehicles as opposed to sensor-based systems that collect data solely from a vehicle's surroundings-it could be harder to determine whether fault for a collision between vehicles equipped with V2V technologies lies with one of the drivers, an automobile manufacturer, the manufacturer of a V2V device, or another party.

Costs: The costs associated with a V2V communication security system also remain unknown as the specifics of the system's technical framework and management structure are not yet finalized. While the costs of in-vehicle V2V components may be modest relative to the price of a new vehicle, some experts noted that the potential costs associated with the operation of a V2V communication security system could be significant. Further, it is currently unclear who--consumers, automobile manufacturers, DOT, state and local governments, or others--would pay the costs associated with a V2V communication security system.

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