Politicians flex muscles to strong-arm safety measures


Government-issued mandates making car safety features compulsory for all new automobiles manufactured after a specific date have always been controversial, primarily because they add to the cost of producing the vehicle, a cost carmakers are loath to pass on to consumers, and because they then prevent manufacturers from using these features for brand differentiation.

In addition, mandates have often been plagued by delays, either for technical reasons or because of industry resistance, which has only increased carmakers’ recalcitrance because – as, for example, in the case of Brazil’s Contran 245 mandate – it can result in irrecoverable costs because the technology has evolved and car manufacturers are stuck with outmoded hardware.

Currently, the US Department of Transportation (DoT) is working on issuing mandates for vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology while the European Commission (EC) has ratified the eCall emergency response regulation to come into force after 31 March 2018 – both safety initiatives that can save thousands of lives every year. While both mandates were prepared in parallel, there have been very few other similarities in their evolution.

For example, while the DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)announced its V2V mandate in August 2014, and recently advanced its public timetable, the EC had been struggling with eCall for well over a decade.

In addition, while carmaker resistance to the eCall mandate has been loud and stubborn, US industry representatives and the manufacturers have been largely supportive of the V2V initiative. The powerful Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, though expressing reservations about the integrity of the 5.9 GHz frequency band designated for V2V and V2I communication, has called the technology “one of the most significant advances in driving safety in this generation.” And carmakers have been uncharacteristically cooperative with each other in forming several consortia to test the technology.

Perhaps the most successful of these industry-government cooperative ventures is the Crash Avoidance Metric Partnership (CAMP), which is described as a manufacturer’s “oriented administrative shell under which various stakeholders can collaborate on pre-competitive research projects of mutual interest”.

It was formed by Ford and GM in 1995, and currently includes up to eleven manufactures that collaborate across a number of projects. In addition, carmakers cooperated in the recently completed Safety Pilot Model Deployment project carried out in Ann Arbor, Michigan, [ZD1] by deploying 64 integrated light vehicle V2V prototypes equipped with crash avoidance safety applications.

According to Zac Doerzaph, director of the Center for Advanced Automotive Research at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, the aim of the project was to test the readiness of dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) in a connected vehicle for use in V2V and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) and involved approximately 2,800 cars, trucks and transit vehicles equipped with V2V systems, as well as roadside infrastructure.

Doerzaph says the research showed that the technology still needs some development before being ready for launch. “It’s not like they’re perfect and working. Some significant challenges remain, such as putting a deployment-ready security system in place and thoroughly tested.”

As an example of potential problems, he cites the effect on the GPS-based technology of a solar flare. “The positioning system gets all screwy. You don’t want to do automated control of a vehicle based entirely on any of these V2X systems or applications right now.”

In addition, there are a number of institutional issues to be resolved, particularly regarding the legal requirements. “The mandate would prepare a legal framework for the technology,” he says. “We’re going to go into a courtroom sooner or later. What happens when a malfunctioning [DSRC] radio can be linked to an accident? Right now, there is no clear path to how that would be resolved.”

It is also not yet clear how broad the mandate will be. “The mandate is likely mandating the basic technology and not the application,” Doerzaph suggests. “It’s possible that it will not have anything to do with the application. It will just be enabling the technology to take the next step. The application could be developed by the industry.”

He adds that most carmakers and Tier 1 OEMs see V2V as just another sensor on the car, “another part of a broader vehicle suite of advanced sensing technology. It should not be thought of as the end-all and be-all.”

Frederic Bruneteau, managing director of the Ptolemus Consulting Group, agrees, saying that he is “sceptical” of its value. “Potentially other technologies can compete with V2V, such as highly efficient 4G connectivity, all video sensors, heat detection sensors and of course radars.”

In addition, V2V is not the most convenient technology, he maintains. “Others can work independently, while V2V needs to be connected.”

Furthermore, Bruneteau notes, at least half of all cars on the road need to be equipped with V2V technology for it to be effective, and that will take at least ten years. “But it does provide an additional layer of security for the autonomous car,” he admits.

Still, V2V and V2I technology is coming to US cars, and sooner rather than later, thanks in large part to the Safety Pilot Model Deployment project. Doerzaph says that information gathered in the project was used by the DOT to prepare for a mandate decision. In addition, “carmakers and the DOT are now doing follow-on work with the results”.

In fact, he notes, GM announced at last year’s ITS World Congress that it would market vehicles with its own V2V solution by 2017, probably well ahead of the mandate timeframe. As Doerzaph puts it, “Industry often moves faster than government.”

That is certainly the case with the European eCall initiative, where many major factories, such as Volvo, BMW and PSA have been offering their proprietary emergency response systems for years.

Bruneteau says that much of the carmaker resistance to eCall was based on objections to the technology.

“France was against it because the EC solution uses the Qualcomm in-band modem, which is a bit antiquated,” he explains. “Carmakers objected because, instead of data packed like emails, it sends packets over the voice channel. The EC chose old systems technology over new technology.”

The reason for this decision was that, at the time it was taken, all PSAPs (public-safety answering points) in Europe were using the voice channel for data, Bruneteau says, adding: “When you make a decision for 28 countries, you sometimes have to compromise.”

In one area the EC did give in to OEM demands. “In the past 12 months, the EC agreed to use a system that directs emergency calls to filters before they reach the PSAP, to make sure that the car’s airbag was not triggered by error or by a minor accident that does not require and emergency response,” he explains. “Many producers already use this filtering system, including BMW, Volvo Cars and PSA.” 

However, the last delay was not, as many people believed, owing to technical problems with the Galileo satellite positioning system, Bruneteau notes. “The EC deconnected eCall from Galileo because of the problems.” The roadblock was caused by the UK, whose deputies stalled it in the European Parliament saying that the system was not useful because the country’s most pressing problem was its limited number of ambulances.

“This is a very narrow-minded way of looking at it; it is not a long-term view,” Bruneteau says. “eCall would unblock this issue because it addresses a critical problem. If you have an accident, you must get to the people in the first hour. Every minute is vital.”

But there will be no more delays, he says confidently. “The eCall mandate is now scheduled for the end of March 2018.”

And not a moment too soon, says Niranjan Manohar, programme manager of connectivity and automotive IT at Frost & Sullivan. He says that carmakers continue to fret about the costs of installing the eCall modem, especially on their low-end models. He regards this attitude as short-sighted.

“The service can build brand loyalty and give you big data,” he says. “This is huge for [carmakers]. This is a tool which European factories should see as better business.”

As a model, he cites BMW’s offer of a free trial period for its US cars. “For the first three to four years, BMW has the primary owner, and then the service goes to a second and even a third owner. This helps build a bigger customer base.”

Manohar suggests that offering the eCall system for free is a no-brainer. “Consumers aren’t willing to pay for safety. They feel it’s a must-have and it has to come from the OEM.”

In addition, having the black box installed in every car should encourage carmakers to “use it as a stepping stone for other connected services,” he says. “Even people not interested in these services could get interested.”

In fact, having eCall in low-end car models will potentially offer a far greater market to carmakers for their connected solutions. “Lower-spending groups are not exposed to the [connected] environment,” Manohar explains. “Now they can be exposed to these services. They will get used to that kind of service and come back to you again. This is a huge population.”

And this, he maintains, will help carmakers defray the additional expense of installing the black box. “Through your service revenues you will get back your hardware costs.”

What Manohar is suggesting is that a mandate can be good for business. But are mandates good for anything else?

Yes, says Bruneteau. “Mandates have many benefits. Without them, you might go 50 years before carmakers agree on what to do. With a mandate, you stop asking questions and do it.”

In addition, the mandate will help bring V2V more quickly to enough vehicles to make it function optimally. “You will get a major scale effect, and that’s very beneficial,” Bruneteau says.

And mandates set a standard for the technology, he says, adding that “otherwise car manufacturers would follow their own paths for brand differentiation. And they could impose their own IP to gain money from it. Regarding eCall, it will be impossible for carmakers to impose their solutions. This makes for a level playing field.”

Doerzaph is less enthusiastic about mandates. “They are important,” he says, “but not necessary. It would happen without them. There is always the potential for the industry to do it on its own.”

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