This week experts from the public and private sector convened in San Francisco in an effort to establish standards for the forthcoming “connected vehicle” transportation environment. The workshop, conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Intelligent Transportation Systems – Joint Program Office, comes on the heels of a February 3 announcement by the U.S. DOT that it would begin laying the foundation for a wireless network that allows vehicles to communicate with each other and with roadside infrastructure.

The U.S. DOT’s decision to begin the process of requiring automakers to bake in connected vehicle technology follows data gathered from a program it conducted with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Safety Pilot Model Deployment involved some 2,800 vehicles equipped with dedicated short range communication (DSRC) technology that sought to test the viability of connected vehicle technology for reducing collisions.

Approximately 50 attendees gathered for the Connected Vehicle Reference Implementation Architecture workshop with the goal of beginning to “identify a framework for integrating connected vehicle technologies and identify interfaces for standardization…and to obtain stakeholder feedback to assist the U.S. DOT in developing a Standards Plan for Connected Vehicle interfaces.”

Because of the potential enormity of the scale in which connected vehicles are poised to operate, establishing agreed upon standards and technology architecture is vital. Connected vehicles are part of a larger vision for a complete, robust intelligent transportation system (ITS). In such a system, vehicles are in constant communication with other vehicles, with traffic signals, with drivers, with pedestrians, with mobile devices – with virtually anything able to provide a properly equipped vehicle with enhanced situational awareness to reduce congestion and collisions. In fact, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said such a connected vehicle environment could reduce non-alcohol-related traffic accidents by as much as 80 percent, saving 18,000 lives annually.

Currently, there are a host of ITS architectures that exist regionally. The workshop was an initial step toward establishing a national ITS architecture.

“There are a lot of decisions that need to be made at a policy level,” said David Binkley, a senior systems engineer with Lockheed Martin and member of the U.S. DOT’s National ITS Architecture Team. “How do you get cars to talk to each other? You need an architecture for that.”

Engineers and government officials are wading through an assortment of existing technology and communication standards. Vehicles, roadside equipment and traffic management centers must all be able to communicate instantaneously. DSRC technology, cellular standards like LTE and WiMax, controller area network protocols, Wi-Fi, XML and many more systems will need to be made to integrate seamlessly. 

Once such an architecture exists, an array of possibilities will be opened. Not only will vehicles communicate with each other but with traffic signals, toll booths, and emergency responders. For example, transit vehicles could be given priority through intersections to improve public transit efficiency. Road workers could be equipped with wearable devices that warn them if a car is headed into a work zone. Windshield wipers could provide real-time, highly local weather data. Parking lots could inform drivers when spaces are available. Even big rigs could be automatically moved to the roadside and powered down if a driver exceeds his shift limit.

“If you think about the opportunities here they are indeed limitless,” said Steve Sill, the U.S. DOT’s Program Manager, Vehicle Safety Technology, ITS Architecture and Standards.

Another possible way connected vehicles could change transportation is with vehicle platooning. In platooning, for example, large trucks and light duty vehicles could be made to operate like a virtual train. The large truck could lead a pack of smaller vehicles that are linked closely behind via communication technology. The smaller vehicles could take advantage of drafting, wherein moving vehicles are closely aligned to reduce drag, resulting in mileage efficiency and reduced emissions.

Other vehicles, such as snow plows and ambulances, could use connected vehicle technology to know precisely where other approaching vehicles – or pedestrians with mobile devices – are in order to avoid a collision due to high-speed or inclement weather.

It was also suggested at the workshop that buses could be equipped with sensors on bike racks and wheelchair ramps. This would allow, for example, cyclists to know ahead of time whether the next bus had available space for their bikes and would also allow city transportation officials to determine with greater accuracy where to improve service for those who use bikes or wheelchairs.

When fully realized, the national ITS architecture will be the result of many applications in safety, mobility, environment and support being joined together in an overarching, unified connected vehicle environment.

“The point is,” said Binkley, “that [connected vehicle applications] are integrated together to make something better possible.”