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Communications technology challenges safety regulators

Ian Graig looks at the impact of communications technology in three high-profile areas of automotive product development: driver distraction, vehicle-to-vehicle communications, and autonomous vehicles

Vehicle safety regulation in the United States is increasingly concerned with the impact of emerging communications technologies on active vehicle safety and crash avoidance.

That is not to say that passive safety issues are being ignored, as regulators continue to look at ways to improve the performance of vehicles in protecting occupants in the event of a crash. But the agenda of regulators and OEMs alike is increasingly focused on the impact of advanced communications technologies on vehicle safety – both the positive but also the potentially negative impact.

For example, regulators want to ensure that ever-more ubiquitous “infotainment” devices do not distract drivers and thus raise the risk of crashes. At the same time, however, regulators are working with industry and research institutes to harness emerging communications and vehicle automation technologies that can sense and respond to hazards, calculate risks, warn drivers, or potentially take preemptive actions to reduce the number of crashes. This focus on the impact of communications technology is particularly evident in three related high-profile issue areas: driver distraction, vehicle-to-vehicle communications, and autonomous vehicles.

Driver distraction

For years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of the Department of Transportation has focused on ways to reduce driver distraction resulting from the growing availability of in-vehicle and hand-held infotainment devices, including cell phones. Indeed, the issue of driver distraction was a top priority of Ray LaHood during his four-and-a-half years as President Obama’s transportation secretary.

After years of study, often involving collaboration with leading universities and the automotive industry, NHTSA has adopted a three-step approach to reducing driver distraction through a series of voluntary guidelines. In April 2013, NHTSA released the first of these guidelines, in this case aimed at limiting driver distraction resulting from the use of communications, entertainment, and navigation devices installed in new passenger vehicles. The guidelines cover original equipment in-vehicle electronic devices that a driver operates through “visual-manual means”. The guidelines recommend a limit on the time a driver must look away from the road to perform any task, and also recommend that OEMs disable many functions unless a vehicle is stopped and in park. The guidelines are expected to lead to increased use of voice commands, which the guidelines do not restrict. Some studies have found voice-activated commands can also be distracting, however, and NHTSA will turn to that issue in a later set of guidelines.

NHTSA opted to write non-binding guidelines rather than a mandatory Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard, and drew heavily on voluntary automotive industry standards that have been followed for several years. As a result, OEMs are expected to comply with the new guidelines. The automotive industry has acknowledged the risk of distracted driving but warned that overly restrictive limits on built-in devices could lead drivers to use more distracting mobile devices for the same functions.

NHTSA is now addressing the second phase of its driver distraction efforts, in this case looking at visual-manual interfaces of portable and aftermarket devices, with a goal of publishing guidelines by the end of this year. The third phase will address auditory/voice interfaces. NHTSA may consider the distraction guidelines in reshaping its New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), which is used for the government’s five-star safety ratings system for light vehicles.

V2V technologies

NHTSA has also aimed to ensure that the NCAP ratings take into account the newest crash-avoidance technologies, including lane departure warning and forward collision warning. These technologies, which depend on advanced sensors and radar systems, have been appearing in growing numbers of passenger cars. The next step in developing such active-safety technologies, however, lies with the ongoing development of advanced vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications that allow vehicles to exchange information about their speed, location, direction of travel, braking, etc.

In early February, NHTSA announced plans to move forward with developing a proposed rule that would require V2V communications technology in new vehicles. The long-anticipated announcement was based on a study of over 3,000 vehicles conducted by NHTSA and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute in Ann Arbor, Michigan. NHTSA is expected to require new vehicles to be equipped with wireless dedicated short-range communications chips that would enable vehicles to communicate with one another, opening the door to many active safety technologies. NHTSA reportedly could also consider rules related to on-board sensors or potentially automatic braking systems. On-road pilot studies of V2V technologies also continue.

V2V and related vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technologies are viewed as having great potential in reducing crashes, but myriad challenges related to issues such as privacy, data ownership, and technology standards still need to be overcome. Another key challenge is the availability of wireless spectrum, with Internet service and content providers lobbying for access to spectrum that to date has been devoted solely to automotive safety applications. The expansion of V2V and V2I technologies is nonetheless seen as a potentially significant advance in crash avoidance that could also reduce vehicle emissions by boosting more environmentally sound driving practices, improving traffic flow, reducing starts and stops, and providing better real-time traffic information.

Autonomous vehicles

The next step beyond V2V and V2I technologies is one that has captured the imagination of even Washington policymakers who rarely deal with vehicle safety: autonomous or self-driving vehicles. In 2012, Nevada became the first US state to approve the testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads, and Google, Audi, and Continental are conducting tests in the state. California has approved legislation that would allow testing of autonomous vehicles on its roads as well, and other states may do so. Google has announced plans to produce autonomous vehicles in the Detroit area for use in on-road testing. Congress has held hearings on the issue, and lawmakers at times seem enthralled by the possibilities of autonomous vehicles.

NHTSA envisions a five-step evolution toward fully autonomous vehicles, starting with vehicles that have no automation but feature some V2V warning technology (like forward-collision warning). Subsequent steps would find the driver yielding more control to automated systems, such as adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance, and eventually ceding steering, braking, and throttle control to a truly self-driving vehicle. NHTSA is undertaking research on autonomous vehicles, including technologies to allow “platooning” of connected-automated commercial vehicles.

The near-term introduction of such “automated driving” features as self-parking and adaptive cruise control may help pave the way to truly autonomous vehicles, but a host of legal and regulatory questions will need to be addressed before truly autonomous vehicles are widely used on US highways. Key challenges include liability, price, and data protection. In fact, commercially viable autonomous vehicles are not expected to be on US highways until the mid-2020s. The potential for a dramatic reduction in vehicle crashes ensures that autonomous vehicle technology will remain a “Holy Grail” for regulators, OEMs and safety advocates for years to come.

This article was first published in the Q2 2014 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue