Automotive > Powertrain, Body, Chassis & Safety Blog

Ann Arbor to Get 20 Stupid Intersections

by Roger Lanctot | Jan 12, 2021

Mere weeks after the U.S. Department of Transportation learned that it was losing half of the wireless spectrum dedicated to automotive safety applications, due to a spectrum reallocation determined in part by outgoing Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, comes news of a $10M award to the University of Michigan to install "smart intersection" technology at 20 intersections across the city. Perhaps this is a good time for USDOT Secretary Elaine Chao to join Pai on the unemployment line.

This Ann Arbor project will apparently be built around cameras, radar, and infrared sensors intended to capture vehicle and pedestrian movements and communicate them wirelessly using dedicated short range communication (DSRC) technology to enhance safety and traffic throughput. Of course, those communications - intended for connected vehicles operating in the relevant neighborhoods - will be accessible by only 3,000 vehicles in the Ann Arbor area - roughly 1% of the total.

The communications emanating from these 20 sensor-enhanced intersections will only be broadcast to vehicles equipped with DSRC modules. In other words, the U of M project in Ann Arbor will not launch a smartphone app capable of receiving these messages, nor will it coordinate with makers of connected cars to leverage their on-board cellular connections to share these safety messages.

There will be no integration with in-vehicle navigation systems or traffic services that integrate with radio signal broadcasts. And pedestrians, too, will be unable to receive safety notifications on their smartphones related to vehicle movements at these intersections.

In essence, the USDOT is funding a U of M science project with little or no immediate benefit to the general public and at taxpayer expense using outmoded DSRC technology. Why is the USDOT doing this? Why isn't the project being immediately transitioned to a cellular-based technology such as LTE Advanced, C-V2X, or 5G? Why isn't it adopting a more forward-looking stance and working to integrate with popular existing in-vehicle wireless connections?

Actually, there is no good reason. This is especially clear following a conference call a few weeks after the FCC decision which revealed the hundreds of millions of dollars of expense anticipated for de-commissioning existing DSRC installations. In spite of that evidence and statements on the call that all future DSRC deployments would be halted, this U of M boondoggle will move forward pointlessly and expensively to little avail for the public good.

There are companies working today to leverage existing available spectrum - integrated with appropriate sensor portfolios - to enhance intersection safety. The two most prominent companies in this space are Haas Alert - which is outfitting public service vehicles and commercial vehicles with C-V2X beacons to create a wireless "Safety Cloud" for alerting motorists to the proximity of school busses, fire engines, and the like - and NoTraffic - which outfits intesections with cellular and Wi-Fi connections tied to cameras in order to send urgent traffic alerts to vehicles and pedestrians alike over normal cellular frequencies.

There is a broad range of coordinated industry effort afoot seeking to meet the challenge of creating safer intersections. We will shorten this journey if we use existing technologies already tied to devices and frequencies and applications widely deployed in vehicles and mobile devices. Cubic Transportation's Trafficware division offers cellular-based traffic-light-to-vehicle communications technology.

The U of M project does not even suppose a plan to integrate with navigation and traffic information providers such as Googlemaps, Waze, HERE, TomTom, Mapbox, NNG, or Telenav. The Ann Arbor USDOT award is a pointless science project with no social benefit. The most telling fact is that the formal announcement of the funding and the installation fails to specify that it will be using DSRC technology. But the real failure is the inability to offer an immediate benefit by communicating the resulting alerts over existing wireless networks and technology.

Haas Alert, NoTraffic, Cubic Transportaion, and even companies like Savari Networks have taken the plunge into C-V2X technology. These companies are paving the way to a fully integrated communications network encompassing connected cars, infrastructure, and smartphones and designed to reduce traffic congestion and emissions, and to save time and lives. It's time for the USDOT and the U of M to get with the program. End the DSRC boondoggles today.

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