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Crucial Connection


July/August 2012 Volume 5 Issue 3


By William Leventon

Contributing Editor

(609) 926-6447

Intelligent transportation systems hold promise for safer roadways

Driving is a vital part of life, but we pay a high price for it. Each year, there are millions of accidents on the world’s roads, causing tens of thousands of deaths and costing society hundreds of billions of dollars. Widespread traffic congestion wastes enormous amounts of time and fuel. Then there are the steep environmental costs of vehicle emissions.

As governments and companies around the world grapple with these issues, many are exploring the efficacy of linking vehicles and roadways in what are known as Intelligent Transportation Systems. Under the ITS umbrella is a wide range of technologies, including communications, computer processing, sensors and navigation systems. Besides making roads safer, ITS technologies offer other potential benefits, including reduced traffic congestion, fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

The latest wireless ITS systems allow vehicles to communicate with each other and with the road infrastructure. These so-called vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technologies could affect about 80 percent of vehicle crash scenarios involving non-impaired drivers, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. (It’s worth noting that DOT’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration, RITA, is a major player in V2V and V2I research.)

In private industry, meanwhile, there is a thriving market for ITS technologies, products and services, according to the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, which released a study last year on the scope of the North American ITS market. The study found almost 3,000 U.S. companies operating in the ITS field. The U.S. alone posts $48 billion in annual ITS sales and the study projects higher growth for ITS than the general economy.

While they haven’t yet been widely deployed, much bigger things may be in store for “connected vehicle” safety technologies. “Nobody denies that this technology would bring [major] benefits to the table,” said Ravi Puvvala, CEO of Santa Clara, Calif.-based Savari Networks, which makes connected-vehicle safety systems. “So the potential is that this technology would go into all vehicles.”

Among the companies that stand to benefit from a growing market for connected-vehicle technologies are manufacturers of processors, switches, sensors, modems and microcontrollers, as well as companies that use components like these to build ITS systems sold to automakers. On the road-infrastructure side, potential ITS beneficiaries include firms that make traffic-signal equipment and large display devices for freeway-information systems, according to Richard Wallace, director of transportation systems analysis for the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

At present, Wallace said, the primary focus in the connected-vehicle safety field is on a technology called Dedicated Short Range Communications. DSRC is a two-way wireless communication system that permits the high-data-transmission rates critical for safety applications.

In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission has allocated 75 MHz of spectrum in the 5.9-GHz band for ITS V2V and V2I communication. The low latency of DSRC makes it well-suited for V2V collision-avoidance systems, explained Joachim Taiber, professor of automotive engineering at Clemson University.

For V2I applications, however, DSRC now faces strong competition from pervasive cellular communications systems, noted Matthew Barth, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Technology at the University of California-Riverside. “It’s gotten to the point where most V2I communication is probably going to end up being through some cellular technique, taking advantage of the cellular infrastructure that’s already out there.” This would eliminate the need to create a comparable DSRC infrastructure, Barth said.

Small parts, big role

Small parts figure prominently in today’s large cellular infrastructure. “Just in the last 5 years, we’ve gone from cellular modems that were kind of big and clunky to USB sticks that are pretty darn small,” Barth said.


Wireless communications allows cars to be aware of other vehicles on the road, even if the driver is not (top). The types of vehicle-to-infrastructure messages that could be delivered to a vehicle are listed (middle). Connected vehicles may help to mitigate crashes on busy urban streets (bottom). Image courtesy U.S. Department of Transportation.

An example of the Codha Wireless Dedicated Short Range Communications system. The green car has the green light, but the red car is approaching the red light too fast. The drivers cannot see each other due to buildings and other vehicles. Both drivers would receive a collision warning. Image courtesy Cohda Wireless.

As for DSRC technology, Barth points out that the modems that currently go into cars are probably about 15 centimeters square. But like WiFi and other technologies, he expects DSRC units to eventually shrink down to chip-level size.

In addition, expect small parts to play big roles in future GPS devices. People are used to a GPS telling them they’re on a certain road on the way to a certain destination. But to meet the latest ITS needs, Barth said, GPS units will have to provide more exact information, such as what lane a driver is in. To handle such tasks, GPS technology must be enhanced with additional position-sensing capabilities, Barth noted, which could be provided by micro accelerometers like those in smartphones.

Both GPS and DSRC technologies are key to the operation of DOT/RITA’s Roadside Equipment (RSE) system. Microscale components in the RSE include a GPS chip and a DSRC-radio chip set, as well as a microprocessor and small dip switches used for channel selection.

Small size is a big selling point for another connected-vehicle system for both V2V and V2I communication. Developed by Cohda Wireless, an Australian firm, the MK2 radio is “essentially a single-chip solution, with a few extra components,” said Paul Gray, Cohda’s CEO. Key components of this DSRC device include an embedded processor and a GPS receiver. A variant of the common WiFi systems in wireless home and office networks around the world, the MK2 “can be as small and as cheap as a WiFi radio,” Gray added.

While comparable systems might require sensors pointing in every direction to spot potential threats and warn drivers, a single MK2 unit provides 360° coverage around a vehicle, Gray said.

Unlike optical collision-avoidance systems that can only spot what’s in their line of sight, Cohda’s patented products sense threats around corners and large vehicles that block a driver’s view. “While you’re still well back from the intersection, you get a warning in enough time to make evasive maneuvers,” Gray explained.

Like Cohda, Savari makes equipment for both V2V and V2I applications. Designed for the latter, Savari’s StreetWAVE roadside unit is a fixed wireless gateway that can be mounted to a roadside traffic pole. StreetWAVE includes both WiFi and DSRC radios.

For in-vehicle installation, Savari offers its MobiWAVE family of products. MobiWAVE devices transmit basic safety messages to other vehicles and devices over a DSRC wireless network. For example, a MobiWAVE device could warn of a vehicle in a driver’s blind spot, which could prevent an accident if the driver initiated a lane change.

Microscale components in Savari’s equipment include sensors in the company’s roadside units and in-vehicle sensors, such as accelerometers. Their purpose, Puvvala explained, is to bring information from outside into the vehicle, and from within the vehicle to the driver.

Obstacles on the road

Despite their benefits, connected-vehicle ITS systems are not widely deployed. One major hurdle has been the enormous investment that would be required to deploy roadside DSRC units for V2I systems (typically attached to traffic light poles), said Taiber, who describes these units as mobile base stations that communicate with DSRC units in vehicles. Exacerbating the problem is the limited range of the roadside units, which means “you need a lot of them,” Taiber said.

According to Puvvala, the U.S. government’s initial plan was to set up wireless units like StreetWAVE at every traffic light pole. But now much of the work being done by DOT involves making use of existing cellular infrastructure.

vehicle2.tif platform2.tif

Sensors for ITS advanced vehicle positioning and mapping (above) developed by the University of California, Riverside, are shown mounted onto a vehicle (top). The hope is that these sensors will be reduced in size and integrated directly into future vehicles. Images courtesy University of California, Riverside.

“Though we’ve started to deploy [StreetWAVE] systems in the U.S., we believe it will become more popular in countries where the government has more control over the infrastructure and is willing to spend money on it,” Puvvala said. For example, he noted that Asian countries, like Korea, have specific uses in mind for StreetWAVE-like V2I systems, such as providing information to emergency vehicles.

“I don’t think the capital expenditure for this type of equipment is much of an issue for bigger governments,” he said. “If the volume exists, the cost of the equipment can be brought down.” Far more problematic, he said, are costs related to installing, operating and maintaining equipment on traffic light poles.

Cost is also a major issue when it comes to V2V equipment. For example, some V2V safety applications require precise determination of vehicle positions on the road. “You can put $10,000 worth of GPS equipment into a vehicle to get centimeter-level accuracy,” Puvvala said. “But we’re trying to achieve the same level of accuracy with a $30 GPS device.”

DSRC units certainly must get much cheaper to be widely deployed in vehicles, said Barth, who’s working on a system with DSRC units that cost a couple thousand dollars each. But, like WiFi and other electronics innovations, DSRC prices will likely come down significantly over time, according to Barth.

Mass-produced chips and other components that lower per-component prices could help make this happen. Taiber sees this kind of hardware entering the ITS market, driving down system costs.

Deployment drivers

While costs and other issues are holding back deployment of current connected-vehicle technologies, powerful factors could lead to mass deployment in coming years. One is possible government-mandated use to reduce accidents, a factor Wallace said may be critical. “My gut instinct is that [V2V safety] technology needs to be pervasive or its value diminishes. What’s the point of the system if, when you need it, you encounter a rogue vehicle that isn’t properly equipped and it doesn’t work?”

Barth doesn’t think there will be a direct mandate requiring the use of some ITS technology, but he does believe certain government rules could help increase adoption of connected-vehicle systems. Consider, for example, the U.S. government’s strict fuel economy standards, which have automakers looking for new ways to boost gas mileage. “They’ve already gone after the low-hanging fruit, such as making cars aerodynamic and improving powertrain technology. Now they’re starting to turn to ITS technology,” Barth said.

A fuel-saving system Barth and his colleagues are working on involves establishing communications between vehicles and traffic signals. The idea is to change the speed of vehicles as they move through intersections to boost fuel efficiency. Current research shows this approach can yield fuel savings of 10 to 15 percent, according to Barth.

At first, such systems would probably be limited to providing driving advice—for example, a recommended speed that appears as a driver approaches an intersection. But some in the ITS field have also considered automatic vehicle-speed changes in an intersection, Barth noted.

According to Barth, systems that provide driving advice would include communications equipment, a microcontroller or microprocessor, position sensors and a display for the driver. For automatic vehicle-speed changes, he added, special cruise-control circuitry would probably be required.

Standing on their own

Government rulemaking aside, can connected-vehicle technologies catch on simply because drivers want them? Some non-safety-related ITS technology has already passed the market test. For example, Wallace points to cellular 3G and 4G mobile devices that provide navigation information; they have been widely accepted.

As for connected-vehicle safety systems, Gray maintains they can be commercially viable regardless of what governments do. To back up his assertion, he cites the results of recent V2V “driver acceptance clinics,” the first phase of DOT’s Connected Vehicle Safety Pilot Program. Between August 2011 and January 2012, feedback was gathered from nearly 700 drivers who participated in tests of V2V communications equipment. According to DOT, an “overwhelming majority” of the drivers said they would like to have the equipment in their own vehicles, and most thought the technology would improve driver safety.

This summer, DOT will launch a yearlong second phase of the Connected Vehicle Safety Pilot Program. To test crash-avoidance technologies in a real-world setting, approximately 2,800 vehicles will take to the roads of Ann Arbor, Mich. Information from this large trial will be used by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to decide, by next year, whether to take additional action on V2V technologies. Gray said there are a number of potential outcomes, ranging from a finding that more research is needed to issuing a mandate like those involving seatbelts and airbags.

While U.S. automakers “may be a little more focused on regulations” as the main reason to deploy connected-vehicle safety systems, some European automakers have advanced plans to equip vehicles with the technology regardless of any government mandates, said Gray, with 2015 and 2016 being discussed as possible deployment dates.

“What we’re seeing [in Europe] is just the result of commercial pressures among carmakers,” he said. “Once one carmaker starts making noises about doing something, the others fall into line.” µ

About the author: William Leventon is a contributing editor for MICROmanufacturing. He has a M.S. in Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and a B.S. in Engineering from Temple University. Telephone: (609) 926-6447. E-mail:

Street-smart systems

To spur research into intelligent transportation systems, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration held a contest in 2011. Entrants in the Connected Vehicle Technology Challenge had to submit a proposal detailing an innovative use for Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC), a wireless technology similar to WiFi.


Savari Networks’ StreetWAVE roadside equipment offers a flexible platform for deploying ITS applications and provides improved mobility and safety on the roadways. Image courtesy Savari Networks.

The winners and their entries were:

  • Matthew Henchey and Tejswaroop Geetla, University of Buffalo: a real-time DSRC accident-awareness system that would accelerate emergency response and assist with traffic management.
  • Norio Komoda, Jennifer Smoker and Ariko Komoda of Sakura Associates: a driver guidance system able to collect information about accident locations to help drivers choose safer routes.
  • Venkatesan Ekambaram, Kannan Ramchandran and Raja Sengupta, University of California, Berkeley: a system for using DSRC signals onboard vehicles that would improve weakened positioning information and correct illegally “jammed” GPS signals.
  • Doug Lundquist, University of Illinois, Chicago: an automated system for trading pollution credits among vehicles in which the level of pollution allowed per vehicle would be capped and credits given to lower-polluting vehicles.
  • Michael Todd, Jay Farrell and Matthew Barth, University of California, Riverside: a position-estimating system able to use inputs from an auto’s GPS and road-embedded devices to estimate the vehicle’s position within 1m.
  • Lee Tupper, Rahul Amin, Fan Yang and Parth Bhavsar, Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research: a system intended to help a vehicle’s owner schedule trips, including everything from choosing the best route to reserving a parking space.

The Clemson entry focused on the university’s Integrated Intelligent Transportation Platform, which includes smart charging, commercial apps, road usage and crash reporting.

“We want to improve vehicle efficiency by giving feedback to the driver (a notice the battery needs to be recharged, for instance) and allowing commercial activities, such as placing a food order at a local restaurant, perhaps through an in-vehicle dashboard touch-screen app, then paying for the order using a system similar to the way you pay a toll,” said Clemson’s Joachim Taiber.

“We will create in our own vehicles the ‘digital lifestyle’ we experience in our everyday, modern lives,” Taiber said.

—Yesenia Salcedo


Center for Automotive Research
(734) 662-1287

Center for Environmental Research & Technology
University of California, Riverside
(951) 781-5791

Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research
(864) 283-7100

Cohda Wireless
+61 8 8364 4719

ITS Joint Program Office, U.S. Department of Transportation
(866) 367-7487

Savari Inc.
(408) 833-6369


William Leventon is a New Jersey-based freelance writer. He has a M.S. in Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and a B.S. in Engineering from Temple University. Telephone: (609) 926-6447. E-mail: Telephone: (609) 926-6447. E-mail: