While Google is hard at work on self-driving cars, the US Department of Transportation and University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) are tackling the much nearer term problem of driver safety by putting the sophisticated data collection and transmission found in smartphones into your car. Tuesday marked the beginning of a yearlong, $14.9 million connected vehicle experiment, the second phase of a pilot program that began a year ago. The deployment includes approximately 2,800 cars, trucks and buses, 300 of which are getting aftermarket safety devices to beam data like position, velocity, and acceleration to and from neighboring vehicles and infrastructure ten times every second. Another 64 will be "fully integrated," with safety systems installed during production, while the remainder will have simple transmission-only devices.

Like Wi-Fi, minus the red tape

The data is transmitted using a high-speed, low-latency medium called dedicated short-range communications or DSRC. The specification is similar to Wi-Fi, but transmissions happen on the licensed 5.9GHz band rather than on Wi-Fi’s unlicensed 2.4GHz frequencies, using the 75MHz of spectrum the FCC specifically set aside for vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications. The Department of Transportation points out that truly useful safety applications require millisecond-order response times, and the ordinary Wi-Fi operations of finding nearby base stations and associating with them would make it untenable. DSRC, prioritizes speed and safety above everything else, including bandwidth. It also has a much longer range (1000 feet) than even 802.11n, and copes a lot better with high-speed movement, sending and receiving usable messages at up to 120mph. Privacy is also a big part of the implementation according to a Department proof of concept document; the system will not be able to track individual vehicles for more than 2 kilometers (about 1.25 miles), it won’t be able to tell if you broke a traffic law, and it will maintain drivers’ anonymity.

A smarter car is a greener car

On top of improving safety, it’s hoped that the project will have green spillover effects for the environment. Drivers will be able to get accurate real-time traffic updates directly from cars ahead of them, and be given alternate route suggestions. If all goes according to plan, fewer accident-induced backups and better use of less-congested roads should lead to less efficiency-sucking idling.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will use the enormous pile of data compiled over the next year to help decide the future of connected vehicle technology, which could include mandatory deployment, voluntary installation in new cars, or further research and development. The Department of Transportation hopes the project can shift the safety paradigm from improving seat belts and air bags to avoiding crashes altogether.