The Social Network for Cars: Test of the Nation’s First Wireless Collision Avoidance System

10/20/11Follow @gthuang

A Boston-area security tech company and the University of Michigan are involved in one of the most ambitious—and potentially controversial—transportation projects of our time. It could have major impact on federal legislation, and almost everyone you know.

Picture this: You’re driving in your car, approaching an intersection. Maybe you’re speeding a little, going 40 mph in a 35 zone, say. Unbeknownst to you, another driver is racing down the cross street and is about to run a red light (probably texting or something). This could spell disaster. But instead, your car picks up a wireless signal from the other vehicle. A beeping sound or flashing light on your dashboard alerts you to slow down, so you hit the brakes. Disaster averted.

Now let’s take it a step further. Maybe the alert is hooked into your car’s control system, so if you don’t put on the brakes, your car does it automatically. And maybe that’s fine with you. But you might be a little worried about giving up that kind of control in life-and-death situations. After all, computers get hacked and software crashes. Not to mention, you might not want your car broadcasting its speed and location out there for all to see (especially not the cops, since you were speeding).

This scenario isn’t the future. It’s happening already—at least the driver-alert part. In six cities around the U.S., trials of about 100 drivers each are underway to see how people react to in-car alerts (such as collision warnings, do not pass, and vehicle stopped ahead). But the next step is bigger. In Ann Arbor, MI, some 3,000 cars will be equipped with onboard wireless devices for communicating with each other and signaling to drivers when there’s an imminent hazard. This 12-month pilot study, which was announced recently and starts next August, is being led by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) through a $14.9 million contract from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The state of Michigan has been heavily involved as well.

The goal of the federal initiative is, ultimately, to save lives. In the U.S., auto accidents are the leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 34; more than 30,000 people are killed on the nation’s roadways each year. The hope is that with new early-warning systems in place, a sizable fraction of would-be victims could be saved—some say 80 percent of non-alcohol-related cases—especially when high speed is involved.

The idea of wirelessly connected cars isn’t new, of course. The field of vehicle telematics has been around for years, with applications in fleet management, tracking, and safety. But advances in GPS location technologies, wireless communications, sensors, hardware, and algorithms are enabling smarter, better-connected vehicles to be tested on a bigger scale. And recent breakthroughs such as autonomous road-racing vehicles and Google’s self-driving car are starting to propel the technology into the mainstream.

Nevertheless, the Michigan study raises some serious real-world concerns. “This is a massive system with tremendous security and privacy implications,” says Ed Adams, the chief executive of Security Innovation in Wilmington, MA. And that’s exactly where his software security firm comes in.

Security Innovation developed the mobile software being used in the U-M study to … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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