Smartphones, ADAS and the connected car

Smartphones, ADAS and the connected car

Forget expensive pedestrian avoidance systems using embedded cameras and radars.  

A new system being developed by General Motors explores how pedestrians’ smartphones could be used to alert drivers to potential collisions. And the broader automotive community is taking note.

Automakers like Volvo and Toyota have unveiled pedestrian detection in the last few years, but those systems are based on refinements to in-car accident avoidance systems, such as vehicle-embedded cameras and radars.

In GM’s case, an app on a pedestrian’s smartphone transmits location information via Wi-Fi Direct, a peer-to-peer wireless standard that allows devices to connect directly without a remote access point, much like Bluetooth.

Wi-Fi chipsets in nearby vehicles receive the signal, and onboard notifications—a flashing directional arrow on a console display, in one GM demonstration—alert the driver to the presence of pedestrians or bikers in the area.

“So many people carry cell phones today,” says Don Grimm, senior researcher at General Motors, “and Wi-Fi Direct doesn’t require a hardware change. Pretty much any Wi-Fi chipset that’s out there today, if the vendor provides a driver for it, can operate as a Wi-Fi Direct device.”

Lower entry to ADAS

Deployment of the system is still about four years out, but already major car manufacturers like GM are getting serious about using smartphone technology to augment existing safety features on vehicles and to lower the barriers to entry of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) for consumers.

Smartphones may soon play integral roles in getting vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) systems off the ground as well, analysts say.

One reason is that automakers see huge cost advantages to leveraging the ubiquity of smartphones to bring the latest technology into vehicles. That’s the logic driving Ford’s Sync App Link, Mercedes-Benz’s DriveStyle app and BMW’s ConnectedDrive, tools that put the smartphone in the technological driver’s seat.

“I think some of the promise with wireless communication is the opportunity to bring some of these safety features to volume vehicles,” Grimm says. “We can bring the safety systems of our Cadillac cars to our Chevy fleet.”

Roger Lanctot, associate director in the global automotive practice at Strategy Analytics, sees potential in Grimm’s goal. 

“The idea of enabling an enhanced safety experience in a car by virtue of enabling communication between a driver’s mobile device and the roadside or other cars is a compelling and proven proposition,” he says. “It’s proven for tolling and proven for traffic, and there are existing solutions. It’s early days, but I think the technology exists to enhance safe and efficient driving using mobile-device connectivity.”

What about DSRC?

GM is currently considering ways that smartphones can complement dedicated short-range communication (DSRC) technology to create feature rich V2V and V2I systems.

DSRC, a short- to medium-range communication band reserved for automotive use, is being put through its paces in testing in the United States and Europe as the industry moves closer to a fully connected vehicle.

In Europe, where V2I deployment is being pushed more stridently than in the United States, there are test beds where work zone warnings are already being communicated via DSRC. The largest trial in the United States is underway in Ann Arbor, where nearly 3000 vehicles have been outfitted with DSRC devices. That trial will wrap up later this year.

(For more on the Ann Arbor Safety Pilot, see Ann Arbor and the future of V2V/V2I, part I and Ann Arbor and the future of V2V/V2I, part II.)

But ramping up V2V and V2I will take time, and using DSRC as the band of choice is far from a foregone conclusion. “There are some clouds on the horizon,” Lanctot warns.

Most significant among these is the possibility of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allowing the sharing of the 5.9 GHz DSRC band, which could raise serious concerns about signal interference.

This leaves OEMs like GM unsure which way the connected vehicle winds will blow a few years down the line. And rather than rolling out feature-rich systems and risk deploying expensive technology that doesn’t get used, Grimm is dreaming up ways to put minimal DSRC equipment into vehicles and leaving the rest to the smartphone.

DSRC light

A DSRC chipset embedded in a vehicle might serve as a gateway between the driver’s smartphone and an external DSRC signal from another vehicle or the roadside.

“I could download a mobile app on my phone,” Grimm says. “Say I want to be notified about severe potholes or situations where someone slipped on a patch of black ice. The application would run, the vehicle portion of the system would broadcast out its location and some status information. Likewise, the vehicle would receive information from other communicating vehicles. If there was a vehicle ahead that went over a severe pothole, that vehicle would communicate with mine, and this DSRC gateway device would send the information to my phone. The phone then determines if it’s worth notifying the driver about the event.”

For a system like this to work, auto makers will need to offer seamless integration across major platforms. GM has developed its own proprietary protocol to communicate the serial port profile and Apple HID profile over Bluetooth. Going forward, MirrorLink may be another solution.

Another possibility is to bypass the embedded gateway approach and put DSRC chipsets directly into handsets. “There are companies like GeoToll right now that are talking about adding a sleeve to a phone,” Lanctot says. “I think the industry is underestimating the power of the smartphone, and how it can be leveraged in this regard.”

Clouds over the cloud

One solution Grimm doesn’t see catching on for imminent accident avoidance is cloud hosting based around the LTE standard. That’s because cell speeds can diminish with high network use and lags occur as a signal is handed off from one tower to another.

“It’s not most efficient way to communicate safety info between vehicles,” he says. “If we’re 50 feet apart on the road, it seems like a more efficient use of bandwidth to broadcast within our local area up to maybe ¼ or 1/8 of a mile rather than go two miles away to the tower and then all the way back.”

However, he does leave open the possibility that cloud-hosting services will become aggregators of road condition information. Drivers could be alerted to hazardous road conditions that other vehicles broadcast days or weeks earlier. 

Greg Nichols is a regular contributor to TU.

For all the latest telematics trends, check out Content & Apps for Automotive Europe 2013 on June 18-19 in Munich, V2V & V2I for Auto Safety USA 2013 on July 9-10 in Novi, MI, Insurance Telematics USA 2013 on September 4-5 in Chicago,Telematics Russia 2013 in September in Moscow, Telematics LATAM 2013 in September in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Telematics Japan 2013 on October 8-10 in Tokyo and Telematics Munich 2013 on November 11-12.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports: Telematics Connectivity Strategies Report 2013The Automotive HMI Report 2013Insurance Telematics Report 2013 and Fleet & Asset Management Report 2012.

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