Automotive > Infotainment & Telematics Blog

MDOT's Not So Smart Highway

by Roger Lanctot | Aug 26, 2015

If you are looking to see your tax dollars being frittered away in some place other than the Middle East you need look no further than Interstate 96 and 696 outside Detroit. Here you will find sensors and cameras being installed along 20 miles of roadway intended to communicate traffic information to cars equipped with hardware, software and services that do not yet exist, according to a report in The Detroit News. - 'Smart' Freeway Rises on I-96, I696'

In fact, the first production vehicle capable of sending any information to  these sensors and cameras will be the MY17 Cadillac CTS. In other words, this installation, the first step in creating a 125-mile “connected corridor,” represents the most senseless sensor installation imaginable.  (It would be only slightly more useful if the MY17 Cadillacs could RECEIVE information from the network.)

The project is part of a U.S. Department of Transportation initiative, conducted in cooperation with the Michigan DOT, to bring vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication to cars via a mandated, built-in box in cars. But rather than communicating via a smartphone app, a local radio broadcast, satellite radio, or via LTE multicast, the system currently installed uses a Wi-Fi derivative called dedicated short range communication or DSRC.

The advocates of DSRC claim that it will serve as the foundation of a system which will ultimately enable self-driving cars and automated roadways. The reality is that the technology is fatally flawed and has been superseded and surpassed by existing cellular technology. In fact, next generation 5G cellular technology will come with DSRC capabilities built in thereby rendering the mandated technology superfluous.

The connected corridor initiative has all the earmarks of U.S. Senator Ted Stevens’ “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska. The DSRC technology arrives past its expiration date, improperly configured and conceived and with no preparation to respond to or interact with the new connected environment in which it will reside.

Rather than leveraging existing in-vehicle connections, the DSRC system is essentially creating an entirely new network with its own set of protocols, hardware, software, and, eventually, in-vehicle interfaces. The big thinkers at the USDOT and MDOT appear to have missed the email which reveals that cars themselves are becoming sensors and will eventually become hubs of wireless connectivity with the onset of 5G.

Google has received the email. A recent report from Iowa’s DOT on the use of the 511 Traveler Information Service (available in all states) revealed that the chief recommendation is to integrate TIS with other services including mobile apps and built-in navigation systems.

SOURCE: Iowa DOT 511 Study -

“The MVD survey showed that primary competitors (to 511) for overall usage were Google Maps and in-car navigation systems. Use of Google Maps was highest among the youngest driving ages (18 to 30), who were 38% more likely to use Google Maps than those over 60. In-car navigation systems tended to attract middle-aged users (31 to 40) and users with daily workday commute distances greater than two miles.”

Iowa DOT conclusion: “It is important to understand the market share of the competing traveler information providers to better align the Iowa 511 system for optimal return on investment.”

A final note from the Iowa DOT study: “Providing more camera images with higher quality and integration with other applications, such as WAZE, were the most desired features by current Iowa 511 users from the online survey. Both MDV and online survey respondents indicated that ease of use and accessibility as well as graphic design of the website and apps are important.”

Iowa DOT conclusion: “Given the desired features/services by the MVD and online survey respondents, it is critical to provide reliable and real-time information, improve information coverage and details for a variety of public needs, integrate with other information services, disseminate information through the media that can reach a wide range of the target audience, and help ensure Iowa 511 distribution benefits users across significantly different geographic areas, incomes, ages, etc.”

So 511 isn’t the only means of communicating traffic information to drivers. State DOT’s also operate the Highway Advisory Radio (HAR) broadcasts found on major highways and near transportation hubs such as airports. (HARs are normally identified to drivers via roadside signs directing listeners to low-power AM stations – yet another reason NOT to shut down AM signals – yes, that means YOU BMW.)

But DOTs throughout the U.S., and around the world, also operate traffic cameras, the images from which are increasingly accessible via apps and the data from which is now being turned into new traffic information content for on-board navigation systems. Finally, news radio stations on both AM and FM frequencies typically provide real-time traffic information several times every hour.

In other words, there are multiple existing networks for enabling communication between cars – including cellular. The MDOT system will ultimately communicate the signal phase and timing of traffic lights as well as the location and configuration of construction and or road hazards. All of this information ought to and can be communicated via multiple existing wireless points of distribution.

Does MDOT actually intend to only interact with buyers of MY17 Cadillac CTS vehicles equipped with special hardware and software? Will those vehicles RECEIVE any information?  Why wouldn’t MDOT share this very same information over existing service delivery platforms? What if those platform alternatives render DSRC redundant or unnecessary – thereby negating the long-anticipated hardware mandate?

Six car makers have already taken the decision to equip all of their production vehicles with cellular connections: GM, Tesla, Volvo, Jaguar Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz and BMW. How many car makers will have standardized in-vehicle cellular connections five years from now? Do we really need yet another dedicated box for yet another network?

No, of course we don’t. Building a connected corridor is a fine concept, but making it accessible only to owners of cars with specialized hardware and software is wrongheaded, expensive, elitist, and threatens to delay the market penetration of life-saving applications.

And let’s not forget the risk inherent in adding yet another attack surface to enable DSRC communication.

DSRC is simply wrong and doomed to fail. It’s not too late to stop this wrong-way driver.

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