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DSRC: The Road to Ridiculous

by Roger Lanctot | Jun 29, 2017

Stupid has a home and that home is in Macomb County, Michigan. It is here, we learn from The Detroit News, that General Motors Co. has decided to test the use of wireless technology in conjunction with roadside QR code signs to transmit vital traffic information to passing cars. Those messages will only be communicated to cars equipped with Wi-Fi-based Dedicated Short Range Communication (DSRC) technology currently being contemplated for mandated fitment in U.S. cars by the U.S. Department of Transportation beginning as soon as 2019 and currently only available in the MY17 Cadillac CTS.

http://tinyurl.com/y76zhkyq - GM Testing Smart Road Tech with MDOT, Macomb County - The Detroit News

Macomb County and GM are describing the technology as a safety feature in spite of the fact that it will introduce a distracting alert message into the dashboards of passing DSRC-equipped MY17 Cadillac CTS vehicles. The Detroit News tells us the first connected construction zone in the nation, on Interstate 75 in Oakland Country, will allow test cars to read roadside bar codes which communicate approaching lane closures. Additionally, reflective strips on workers’ safety vests contain information identifying them as people instead of traffic barrels, according to the Detroit News report.

This technology is expected to speed the development self-driving cars by enabling vehicle to infrastructure and vehicle-to-vehicle communications. It’s worth noting that none of the leaders in autonomous vehicle development are currently exploring the use of DSRC.

This non-cellular wireless tech qualifies the Michigan implementation as “smart” in the words of The Detroit News even though cellular technology is not being used to transmit the same information to traffic apps like Waze, Telenav Scout, HERE, TomTom, Google Maps or NNG’s iGo. For some reason the Michigan Department of Transportation and Macomb County believe that talking to cars in a specialized language using specialized and expensive hardware is “smart.”

The multimillion dollar exercise in exclusivity raises many questions. The most important question is why the State and the County have seen fit to share what they claim to be potentially life-saving information solely over a private network accessible only to a single new car model instead of opening up the broadcast to all traffic-related communication platforms.

This extraordinary feat of transportation exclusion extends beyond this highway work zone alert transmitting solution.  The Detroit News tells us the state has established at least 100 miles of “connected” highway corridors with roadway sensors and plans for 350 more miles – all speaking in wireless electronic tongues – instead of cellular.

The technology is also being used to communicate the signal phase and timing of traffic signals, though, again, only to an appropriately equipped MY17 Cadillac CTS or so-equipped test vehicles. This “smart” approach to connecting cars to infrastructure ignores the fact that no more than 200 traffic lights nationwide make use of DSRC technology while thousands of traffic lights are connected using cellular technology and are accessible using the ConnectedSignals Enlighten app which works on any smartphone and is integrated in the BMW Apps platform in most new BMW’s. Audi of America offers a similar solution via the embedded cellular connection.

More importantly, for fixed communications opportunities between infrastructure and cars such as the Oakland County work zone scenario, cellular is the superior preferred solution. A growing chorus of states is rising up against the USDOT, which is insisting on the use of DSRC for most transportation project incorporating connectivity. That is some USDOT regulatory over-reach we can all do without. President Trump?

To be clear, there is nothing smart about sending valuable construction zone and traffic light information exclusively via a communication channel requiring expensive hardware with limited availability. The system as currently deployed is not even integrated with emergency responders and law enforcement, to say nothing of commercial vehicles.

Were Macomb and Oakland counties and the State of Michigan to transmit the same information via cellular, the solution would not only be smart, but revolutionary. It would also align the State with the growing cadre of cities and states around the world that are sharing vital roadside traffic information over existing wireless networks for consumption via widely available consumer devices and in-vehicle integration platforms.

In this context, the roadside QR codes are the latter day equivalent of the clever Burma Shave signs from the middle of last century. Modern networks and cloud service delivery platforms have enabled edge computing technology such that alerts regarding approaching highway hazards and traffic information can be communicated at sufficiently low latency to be useful to drivers without requiring any additional infrastructure.

The onset of wireless technologies such as LTE Advanced Pro and 5G mean that collision avoidance applications will soon be enabled via embedded modems within five years – enabling direct communications without the network and at no cost. In this context, the creation of an expensive, dedicated network unsupported by any consumer device technology is a path to saving lives that is narrow indeed. Worse, it is a road to ridiculous and a waste of taxpayer dollars. There’s nothing smart about that.

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