Duluth Students Working on Vehicle Communication

Updated: 08/19/2013 6:23 AM KSTP.com By: Becky Nahm

Every driver knows that horrible panic of cars braking unexpectedly in front of you on the highway. You must react or crash.

New technology promises to prevent this scenario as well as keep traffic moving through work zones and rush hours. It's being pioneered at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Professor Imran Hayee and his electrical engineering graduate students are developing vehicle-to-vehicle technology. They are essentially programming wireless devices to allow cars to "talk" to each other.

They use dedicated short range communication devices, or DSRC devices. The devices are placed in a vehicle and connected with a GPS device and a computer. When in place, each car with a device can send messages or signals to other vehicles equipped with the technology.

The devices are set to detect congestion based on studies of how and when people apply the brakes and other data.

When the system is triggered the lead car transmits a real-time message to cars behind it. Those vehicles deliver the message to their driver and retransmit the message to vehicles even farther down the road.

Eventually the systems would be built into cars and could even make physical adjustments, like applying the brakes to keep drivers safe.

The goal is to avoid rear-end collisions and pass on precise information to drivers so they have plenty of time to choose another route which should help keep traffic moving and alleviate congestion.

The UMD team estimates the system will work best when installed in 20 to 30 percent of all cars. Until then, they are working with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to make the devices "talk" to variable message signs. So instead of warnings like "Caution Work Zone Ahead," you could see exact details on travel time or distance until backup.

In July, the National Transportation Safety Board formally recommended this technology to automakers. Hayee says that should speed up the timeline for when it starts appearing in cars. He expects it could appear within two to four years.

Hayee expects owners of older model cars will be able to buy stand alone devices, just like navigation systems.

While the UMD team is working on congestion and mobility, others are working on other applications. For example, there are systems in the works that would allow your cruise control to tune into other cars surrounding you so you all travel at similar speeds. Still other systems would help you make a left turn by providing information about approaching traffic.

The NTSB estimates that DSRC technology could eliminate 80 percent of all non-impaired crashes, that is all crashes that don't involve things like drunk driving.

The technology has raised questions about privacy and security.

Hayee says the current software application does not store data on individual vehicles. He says state departments of transportation can collect general traffic information from devices set up to talk to the vehicles, like the programmable street signs mentioned. Police would have access to that information too. But none of the data could be traced back to a single vehicle.

As for security, Hayee says the system was built with enough checks and balances to make sure no one can hack the system, and try to create a fake traffic backup or crash.