NextEnergy: Incubating Technology for Tomorrow's Homes and Cars

25 September 2014 Dashboard Insights Blog

Two major forces are reshaping the cars that people will drive in coming years: the push to create a smarter (and eventually, even an autonomous) car, and the push for better fuel efficiency. Smarter cars are seen as a way to make the roads safer and less stressful to use, and fuel efficiency is seen as a way to reduce both the consumption of nonrenewable fuels and the emission of carbon dioxide and other undesirable exhaust gases. In both cases, automakers and other businesses are looking to these technologies not only to give consumers a better product, but also to comply with government mandates for smarter, more efficient cars.

NextEnergy is a not-for-profit incubator for businesses that are looking forward to this future, and developing technologies that will go a step beyond cars that are merely smarter or more efficient. During the recent ITS World Congress in Detroit, NextEnergy hosted demonstrations of several of these technologies. Over the next two posts, Dashboard Insights will look at these technologies, and the implications for what is parked in your garage in the coming years.

Cars That Are Smarter – and More Talkative

Among the technologies that NextEnergy’s partners are working on is the implementation of 802.11p Wi-Fi systems in cars. These systems allow cars to become networked both with each other and with their environment. Because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, is proposing to mandate the use of vehicle-to-vehicle, or V2V, systems, the race to develop technologies that allow cars to talk to one another has taken on a new urgency. Competing developers are looking at applications that go beyond the four corners of what NHTSA proposes to mandate.

Examples of how these systems can make driving safer or more convenient include:

  • Collision avoidance. Two cars equipped with 802.11p systems can “talk” to one another about their position and velocity, and can anticipate potential conflicts, such as where both cars are approaching a blind intersection, and one or both are traveling at an excessive speed. These systems can alert the drivers of an impending hazard, or prime the car’s brakes and other safety systems to allow for a more rapid response to avert a crash.
  • Pedestrian and cyclist safety. One technology already being demonstrated at NextEnergy’s facility by Qualcomm is a pedestrian sensor, in which a car’s 802.11p system and pedestrians’ 802.11p-equipped phones can communicate regarding a potential accident. This is useful in parking lots, where a car can back out of a spot without knowing what is on either side, as backup cameras and mirrors cannot see to either side of the car, and drivers’ vision might be impaired by other parked cars. These networking systems can allow a car to detect a pedestrian approaching a reversing car from the side, and alert the driver—and, in the likely scenario that the pedestrian is engrossed in his or her smartphone, can even cause an alert to pop up on the phone warning the pedestrian of danger.
  • Networked infrastructure. By placing 802.11p transponders along the roadside, such as on utility poles and in traffic lights, cars can receive alerts and other information, such as nearby charging stations for electric vehicles. Transponders could also warn drivers of dangerous conditions ahead, such as dense fog or icy roads, that might be avoided via detour. This is often referred to as vehicle-to-infrastructure, or V2I, networking.

Question Marks Ahead

Even as V2V systems, and the 802.11p systems being developed at NextEnergy, promise safety benefits and more aware drivers, there are unresolved issues that must be ironed out. As NHTSA is gathering comments, topics that it has asked commenters to address include message congestion on frequencies set aside for V2V communications, the allocation of liability for accidents related to V2V functions (or malfunctions), privacy implications from V2V use, and the security of V2V devices from malicious attacks (i.e., hacking). These issues will likely impact the willingness of both manufacturers and consumers to embrace vehicle networking technologies. 

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