Federal car fleet to become test bed for high-tech safety gear

Wireless, crash avoidance systems could become standard equipment

Future autos leased by the federal government will be equipped with some advanced high-tech safety technology in an effort to test the equipment in real-life situations.

The General Services Administration (GSA) and the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said they would team up on the program to further develop high-tech driver and vehicle safety technology.

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The GSA and NHTSA said they will work to:

  • Develop a process to learn about the most beneficial vehicle safety technologies.
  • Create a research program to pilot and evaluate safety technologies/approaches for the federal vehicle fleet.
  • Improve the way information on potential defects, problems and issues are coordinated between the agencies.
  • Ensure that federal vehicles subject to recalls are repaired as quickly and comprehensively as possible.
  • Incorporate the most current understanding of safety technologies and approaches into the government-wide fleet policy.

Most of the car crash avoidance and safety equipment development is known collectively as vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technologies.  According to the Department of Transportation, "research indicates that safety applications using V2V technology can address a large majority of crashes involving two or more motor vehicles. With safety data such as speed and location flowing from nearby vehicles, vehicles can identify risks and provide drivers with warnings to avoid other vehicles in common crash types such as rear-end, lane change, and intersection crashes. These safety applications have been demonstrated with everyday drivers under both real-world and controlled test conditions."

The safety applications currently being developed provide warnings to drivers so that they can prevent imminent collisions, but do not automatically operate any vehicle systems, such as braking or steering. NHTSA is also considering future actions on active safety technologies that rely on on-board sensors. Those technologies are eventually expected to blend with the V2V technology. NHTSA issued an Interim Statement of Policy in 2013 explaining its approach to these various streams of innovation. In addition to enhancing safety, these future applications and technologies could help drivers to conserve fuel and save time.

In August 2012, DOT launched the Safety Pilot "model deployment" in Ann Arbor, Mich., where nearly 3,000 vehicles were deployed in the largest-ever road test of V2V technology. DOT testing is indicating interoperability of V2V technology among products from different vehicle manufacturers and suppliers and has demonstrated that they work in real-world environments.

The DOT 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.

While the technology obviously has it upside, the  Government Accountability Office said last year 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 said defined a number of challenges to these high-tech tools for cars.  A few of the issues raised by the GAO 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. 

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.

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 car there 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.

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