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Is Lifesaving Car Communication Delayed by Federal Indecision?

A system that uses radio waves to allow vehicles to communicate with each other and roadway amenities could help to reduce traffic deaths. But the FCC will eliminate funding to the industry in two years.

(TNS) — Since the start of the pandemic, a sharp and unexpected increase in traffic deaths has renewed the focus on improving safety on U.S. highways through better design, increased education and stronger enforcement of traffic laws.

But development in one area that some experts believe could save thousands of lives is languishing and has suffered a major setback that could delay safety measures for at least 10 years.

For more than 20 years, the federal government has been encouraging vehicle manufacturers to develop a system using radio waves to allow vehicles to communicate with each other as well as with traffic signals and other roadway amenities. That technology is known as vehicle to everything or V2X.

When the industry didn't develop the technology enough to prove its value, the Federal Communication Commission reduced the amount of bandwidth set aside for vehicle communication. Instead, it is encouraging the use of cellular technology, a change some say could push back safety improvements by a decade or more.

"That's about correct. [Cellular] is further behind," said Finch Fulton, former deputy assistant secretary for transportation policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation. "People were trying to make this work for a long time. The whole problem is nobody was able to prove [radio technology] works."

In 1999, at the request of the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Communications Commission set aside 75 megahertz of radio bandwidth for the development of technology for vehicles to communicate with each other and their surroundings. It was supposed to be the exclusive area for the industry to develop technology to improve safety.

Over the years, the industry has spent about $800 million working around the edges of that technology, known as direct short-range communication. Sensors use a radio-based system to exchange information among vehicles and almost everything in the radius around them, even if a driver can't see an upcoming danger because of distance or obstructions such as buildings.

The goal is for vehicles to get information from other vehicles, traffic signals, even the surface of the roadway itself to warn of hazards. Once forewarned, drivers can avoid the danger either by stopping or changing direction.

The system has seen some major developments. In Pittsburgh, traffic lights in the East Liberty area developed by a Carnegie Mellon University spinoff use the technology to help move traffic and protect pedestrians. The University of Michigan has set up a demonstration area of several blocks where vehicles work with each other, traffic signals and other sensors to improve safety and traffic flow.

But overall, with no national technology standard and no mandate to move forward, the industry hasn't done the type of pointed research to prove the technology works well enough to allow federal officials to write formal rules. As a result, the FCC last year reduced the bandwidth for the vehicle-to-everything communication to 30 megahertz from 75 and is expected to eliminate the rest in two years.

Experts say the remaining bandwidth is so small that it would experience interference from regular Wi-Fi service unless the government takes action to prevent that.

"Development will not be moving forward," said Mr. Fulton, now vice president for policy and strategy for Locomation. The Pittsburgh-based company is developing a system to allow tractor-trailers to operate in tandem, following each other with only a driver in the lead vehicle.

"[ The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] doesn't have enough information and can't prove it works," he said about the radio technology. "Now, all of that work is just worthless. People who have spent their whole lives researching this are left with nothing."

Bob Kreeb, NHTSA chief of electronic systems safety research development, said in a podcast produced by the NTSB that the remaining radio wave spectrum has too much interference to be reliable. So the industry is trying to shift to cellular communications, but right now there is no way to allow the radio and cellular systems to work together.

"Essentially, they interfere with each other," Mr. Kreeb said. "They are trying to use the same space at the same time. The physics just doesn't allow that."

That means developing the cellular system almost from scratch.

Debby Bezzina, senior program manager for the $50 million Ann Arbor Connected Vehicle Test Environment at the University of Michigan, told the same podcast that cellular communication is about 10 years behind the radio-based system because it doesn't process information fast enough to produce the same safety results.

"In real estate, it's location. With this, it's time, time, time," she said.

The Department of Transportation will do more extensive studies on the cellular system in the spring.

Michael Graham, an NTSB board member who has championed development of the radio system, said he isn't to ready to give up and believes safety improvements are still within reach. As part of a meeting earlier this month about a deadly bus crash on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, he pushed the board to adopt a resolution encouraging the DOT to set standards for all developers to follow.

In an interview last week, Mr. Graham bemoaned the fact that life-saving technology could be delayed again, citing studies that estimate up to 31,000 lives could be saved over five years. He believes the radio technology has been proven here and in China, but now that "we're in a cellular environment," the industry has to adjust to reach the safety improvements.

"What has happened is the process has stalled here," he said. "I don't like placing blame, but blame can go everywhere — government, industry, the universities. Honestly, I don't think we're going to lose the opportunity.

"OK, the spectrum has been shrunk. Let's continue moving forward here and see what we can get done."

The industry remains split on which technology to pursue.

The 5G Automotive Association, which includes Ford, Jaguar, Audi and Land Rover, petitioned federal officials in December for permission to develop cellular technology. After the NTSB hearing in Westmoreland County three weeks ago, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which includes many of the major vehicle manufacturers and companies developing self-driving vehicles such as Pittsburgh-based Argo AI, issued a statement supporting radio technology.

Raj Rajkumar, co-director of the General Motors-Carnegie Mellon Vehicular Information Technology Collaborative Research Lab, was one of the early researchers using the radio technology. For more than 10 years, he and his team have been demonstrating the technology in their own self-driving vehicle and through the East Liberty smart traffic signals.

Recently, though, that group installed a switch in its self-driving vehicle to change from radio to cellular communication as necessary. Mr. Rajkumar said he believes it is important for federal officials to endorse one system and push development in that direction so the safety improvements can move ahead.

"I think what is holding back development is the indecision at the national level," he said. "It's no secret I have worked with [the radio-based system], but I would really urge DOT and NHTSA to just pick one."

Last year, after the FCC decision to limit radio bands, the transportation department started a website where tech companies are encouraged to share their research in hopes that successes would lead to a common approach for vehicle communication. That is just getting started and hasn't demonstrated any great success so far.

Some experts, including Mr. Fulton, the former federal official, say there doesn't have to be widespread deployment of either system for safety to improve.

Mr. Fulton called for federal officials to continue developing vehicle-to-everything for limited use by first responders so they can reach emergency scenes quickly and avoid accidents by controlling traffic signals.

Other improvements can come from traditional changes such as speed bumps and narrower streets to slow traffic, improved lighting, more intersection bump-outs so pedestrians have less distance to cross the street, and safety barriers for bicycles.

Beyond that, he said, let the industry figure out the best approach based on what the public wants and where companies can make profits.

"If these billion-dollar companies want to operate [using vehicle to everything communication], they have to figure out what works," Mr. Fulton said.

In a report due out this week, one international firm developing self-driving technology, Neural Propulsion Systems of California, claims it can achieve the same types of safety improvements to reduce or eliminate traffic deaths through existing technology.

"Based on principles from physics and information theory, it is possible for sensors to see well enough to enable zero roadway deaths. This is not wishful thinking — It's possible today," Behrooz Rezvani, founder and CEO of NPS, said in a company statement.

NPS claims it has developed an "all-in-one multi-spectral, multi-modal, deep sensor system" using radar, lidar and other technology in a self-contained system that can accomplish the same safety results as the radio- or cellular-based systems.

"This technology can see everything sooner, clearer and farther to provide autonomous vehicles with the distance and time to achieve zero accidents," he said.

(c)2022 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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