Someday your phone may stop an oncoming car

Self-driving cars will try to avoid robot pedestrians in a simulated city as part of an effort to make real-world streets safer.

M-City, a test facility that the University of Michigan opened this month in Ann Arbor, packs a range of street configurations and road conditions into a 32-acre (13-hectare) facility for testing emerging automotive technologies. The site includes stoplights, traffic circles, gravel and brick roadways and movable building facades. It will play host to some of the testing for vehicle-to-pedestrian (V2P) detection systems that Verizon Communications hopes to turn into a commercial reality.

V2P uses DSRC (Dedicated Short Range Communications), the same radios as vehicle-to-vehicle technology that could prevent crashes between cars that approach each other unexpectedly around a blind corner. In the pedestrian safety system, the smartphones people carry would talk to specialized radios in cars or even just to drivers’ phones. Those wireless exchanges are part of a broader effort to prevent vehicle accidents that killed 30,000 people per year in the U.S., according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The agency estimates 14 percent of those accidents involve pedestrians.

With DSRC, mobile radios in phones or vehicles send out signals that other DSRC radios nearby can interpret to predict a likely collision. They don’t have to rely on GPS information from the cloud, so the delays between detection, interpretation and warning can be short enough to prevent accidents, said Amit Jain, director for strategic and business development for IoT verticals at Verizon.

If a car with the technology approaches someone walking across the street carrying a DSRC-equipped phone, the car can give its driver a visual, audible or vibration alert to slow down. DSRC radios have a range as long as a kilometer, but the warning system can be set to ignore everything but the signals from objects near enough to be a hazard, Jain said.

DSRC uses a spectrum band that’s unlicensed, like the ones used by Wi-Fi, but is dedicated to road applications. Verizon isn’t waiting for all cars to be replaced with new models that have the radios. That could take 37 years, according to the NHTSA. Instead, Verizon is testing a way for pedestrians’ phones to simply talk to drivers’ phones, which will do the location sensing and deliver the warnings themselves.

V2P technology has already been tested as part of a vehicle-to-vehicle experiment involving 3,000 cars on the real-world streets of Ann Arbor, which is now being expanded to involve even more vehicles. M-City, which Verizon helped to establish in cooperation with the other companies and the university, is a safe space for testing even more futuristic technologies like autonomous cars.

In self-driving cars, V2P technology may someday apply the brakes itself to keep a nearby pedestrian safe. Convincing a human test subject to find out if that works, at least in the early days, might be a tall order. So some very bold or oblivious robots will find out.

It’s too early to say how soon V2P systems of any kind will become commercially available, Jain said. Verizon wants to be a leader in development but also get multiple industry players involved, so it’s looking for a car maker and a mobile chip maker to partner with. The key to broad deployment will be standards, Jain said. An NHTSA ruling expected by the end of this year might require DSRC on all new cars, but that would take a few years to put in place.

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