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Connected cars: Apps, networks and storage on wheels

This is the third of a three-part series on the Department of Transportation’s plans to use mobile technologies to make transportation safer. Read part one and part two.

Regional traffic systems and individual consumers are now using smartphones to circulate – and consume – crowdsourced information about road congestion, vehicle speeds and other data related to ensuring highway safety. But new mobile applications are already being developed in university and commercial labs that promise even greater functionality.

For example, iOnRoad, a free downloadable application for Android devices and iPhones, uses the devices' video cameras and accelerometers to monitor conditions ahead of the vehicle in which it is mounted. The application issues alarms when it senses a potential collision. 

And Honda Motors recently demonstrated the ability of a car equipped with dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) technology to detect and help avoid a collision with a pedestrian carrying a DSRC-enabled smartphone.  The smartphone tracks the position, direction and speed of its owner and compares it to the DSRC data about the status of nearby vehicles.  When the software determines there is a potential hazard it emits a high-pitched sound and displays an on-screen warning.

Pushkin Kachroo, professor of transportation, electrical and computer engineering at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said that researchers at UNLV are working on a variety of smartphone applications that range from monitoring seatbelt use in passing vehicles to collecting data on road service conditions and transmitting that information to transportation managers for potential action.

"We have not yet built commercial applications of those," Kachroo said, "but we would like to commercialize many of these apps and get them to the market. The technology and capabilities are already there.  It's just a matter of selecting which pieces you want."

Binding stovepipes together with SDN

"We are seeing disparate stovepipes of information services within the transportation segment starting to be pooled … and then combined with other external data to provide a very rich mix of transportation information," said Leo McCloskey, senior vice president for technical programs at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA), a nonprofit public-private-academic research and advisory organization. 

A key step is finding ways to better integrate the stovepipes of data.  And according to Kuang-Ching Wang, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Clemson University, the solution is software-defined networking.

Wang said a team examined  the current bottleneck for connected vehicle technology and came to the conclusion that there is no sustainable funding model for DSRC everywhere, Wang said. At the same time, other forms of wireless connectivity – affordable 4G and Wi-Fi networks – are in many places, Wang said.  So his team proposed to integrate all of these different forms of connectivity using SDN concepts.

With SDNs, Wang said, it doesn't matter what type of traffic is being sent across what kind of network, because programmers can upload rules for handling network traffic to the logic chips in routers and switches.  That allows data from DSRC systems to be integrated easily with smartphone sensor data collected via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth networks.

Ultimately, most analysts expect this integration to take place in the vehicle itself.  "More and more, automakers are building vehicles that are simply platforms," McCloskey said.  And when a car is built as a platform, it’s built differently, he said. “It has faster processors, it has better memory management, it has some disk space that can be used for storage, but also it is communicative and is part of a larger system,” McCloskey explained. 

“I figure we're going to see data integration occurring in the crowd, on the phone and in the car." 

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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