Smarter systems on the way

Some of the issues to come out of this year’s Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) World Congress could end up being critical to the motor vehicle industry in New Zealand. That’s the view of Iain McGlinchy, principal adviser for the Ministry of Transport, who attended the conference in Vienna, Austria, late last month.

Iain McGlinchy, principal adviser for the Ministry of Transport.

Iain McGlinchy, principal adviser for the Ministry of Transport.

He reports the conference was impressive for its sheer size, with 10,000 registered participants and 18 sessions running parallel with each other for four days.

There were practical demonstrations of vehicles and a trade show the size of several large football fields.

McGlinchy says: “ITS has become a catch-cry for anything to do with computers and transport of any type, so there was a huge range of technology on display and discussed.”

The biggest “buzz” at the congress was around so-called “connected vehicles”.

Connected vehicles use wireless short-range digital communications, that’s to say Wi-Fi, to communicate with each other and infrastructure.
These digital communications are finding favour because they are much faster than existing 3G cellphone communications.

Virtually all congress speakers said ITS – and especially connected vehicle technology, or co-operative ITS as it’s also known – will make vehicles and transport systems safer, smarter and more efficient.

Speakers said ITS systems could help to prevent up to 80 per cent of non-impaired crashes – excluding those when drink or drugs are factors.
These new connected devices will support safe driving and prevent accidents by wirelessly receiving information from communications equipment and other vehicles to notify drivers about traffic conditions and objects beyond their view.

“We saw some powerful practical demonstrations about communications via Wi-Fi from vehicle to vehicle and vehicle to infrastructure,” McGlinchy told Autofile.

He’s convinced this level of communication between vehicles is coming.

“They will say, ‘hi, it’s me, I’m here’ and things like ‘an oncoming car is approaching’.

“ITS could end up becoming mandatory in some countries, or at least a requirement for cars to get five safety stars within a few years.”

The possibilities of such systems seem endless. They could warn a vehicle when a car several vehicles ahead has its brakes applied heavily, or tell the driver not to pull out to pass a truck because there’s an unseen car coming.

They might also tell the driver there’s congestion ahead, and suggest using nearby public transport or taking another route.

One application that impressed McGlinchy was an indicator that told the driver approaching a red light what speed to travel at to get there as
it turns green.

“The benefits for freight movement from this sort of system would be huge,” he says. “It’s all about not stopping because trucks use so much energy to move away from a standstill.

“Just keeping the tyres rolling rather than coming to a complete stop is really beneficial for a heavy vehicle.”

These types of systems would need transponders on traffic lights and other street furniture, so there’s the issue of who foots the bill to install the equipment.

Another system, called E-call in Europe, will automatically notify the emergency services if a vehicle crashes.

It will send a message with location co-ordinates and tell the emergency services how many airbags have been activated, how many seat belts were in use and other important information.

“That sort of system might be useful in New Zealand when we hear about people being trapped for days before being rescued,” says McGlinchy.

While ITS sounds great in theory – and in practice in most cases – there are some issues that could affect Kiwi dealers when cars arrive from overseas in coming years.

The key problems will be with the frequencies used. While Europe will utilise one frequency and America has another that partly overlaps with Europe, to confuse matters Japan has proposed that its manufacturers will use two quite different frequencies.

“There’s some overlap in the frequencies between Europe and the US and it’s likely vehicles will be able to move between the two jurisdictions much as cellphones do,” explains McGlinchy.

“It’s also likely they will require a software conversion to work.

“But when it comes to the broadcast frequency, Japan is taking a different approach.

“Europe and the US are using frequencies in the 5.9 gigahertz [GHz] range but Japan has already allocated the 5.9GHz range for other uses.

“It already uses the 5.8GHz for functions, such as road tolling, and had announced it would use this frequency for its ITS communications.

“However, Japanese people at the conference said they have found these high frequencies – 5.8 and 5.9GHz – are not particularly suited to road-safety uses as they have too narrow a beam.

“For road safety, a wider beam is better to spread the signal. The Japanese government has said it will now use the 700MHz band for co-operative ITS uses.”

While the 700MHz frequency might be more suitable technically, it has already been allocated in New Zealand for the new 4G phone network so it’s not likely this frequency will be able to be used in this country.

“In addition, the frequency of communications is only part of the problem,” points out McGlinchy.

“For reasons that were unclear, each jurisdiction appears to be taking a different approach to the types of standard messages that will be sent by the devices.

“You will have one system that’s sending US codes, one sending European and one, Japanese.

“Even if you could change the frequency, like we do with FM radios, it’s unlikely the software on the car would be able to decode the signals without major changes.”

The result is that it could be a bit like changing the frequency on a FM radio with a band expander, but finding the radio was still speaking in Japanese.

“Having a different frequency and different commands in systems on cars coming into New Zealand could be an issue,” says McGlinchy.

While a Japanese system that uses 5.8GHz could probably communicate with another Japanese vehicle that operates on the same frequency, there could be a big risk from interference from outside signals.

“You can already get 5.8GHz modems from Dick Smith in New Zealand, so systems on cars may not be protected from interference,” he says.
“If a 5.8GHz signal was jammed, we don’t know how serious the problem would be.”

Having a sat-nav type feature not working as well as it should isn’t too big a deal, but when the system is safety related, it could be.

The technology is some wayoff, but McGlinchy believes the infrastructure to deal with a system that speaks car to car will only work when decisions are made about investing in roadside technology.

Roading authorities, such the NZ Transport Agency, are unlikely to have the resources to put in duplicate transmission systems to send separate signals to Japanese systems.

“This is probably the first time New Zealand will need to look at what it would do if Japan goes down a different path for its technology.”

However, this technology is evolving fast. Complications may be resolved before these vehicles arrive on these shores, but McGlinchy says it’s a topic the government and motor industry groups need to follow closely.

Another area where technical standards appear to be diverging is in satellite navigation technology. Many new safety technologies, and those that will help drivers drive more fuel efficiently, will rely on knowing where your vehicle is within quite narrow limits – perhaps less than 10 metres.

Current GPS signals can’t provide that level of accuracy and many jurisdictions are launching their own navigation satellites to improve accuracy.

“If Japan uses its own satellite system, a vehicle’s navigation device that works over there may not work here, or not with the precision it will in Japan,” McGlinchy told Autofile.

“If knowing exactly where a vehicle is becomes a critical function and if the car is taking a Japanese signal over New Zealand, you have a separate problem.

“I would say ITS are up to four years away from becoming a commercial reality for high-end cars.

“We also know technology costs come down quickly, so we should expect to see even moderately priced cars having many of these features not long after.”

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