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GM Emerges as the Pied Piper of Wi-Fi Direct-enhanced Safety Systems

by Roger Lanctot | 7月 29, 2012

Ten years into the current smartphone revolution some people and organizations still do not realize what is happening. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the automotive industry where regulators and industry associations continue to take a top down approach trying to build consensus and promote mandates in a market in the throes of being recreated from the bottom up by massive mobile device disruption.

Disruptive change is coming from the radiating ripple effect of global smartphone adoption transforming consumer behavior and content and application consumption patterns.  For the automotive industry, the latest twist on this disruption is the rapid proliferation of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies on mobile devices.

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless technologies are disrupting everything from traffic data gathering to content consumption and, most recently, safety.  Smartphone users have seen their use of mobile phones in cars changed by Bluetooth hands-free interfaces (HFI) and have tapped audio streams through their car stereos with Bluetooth’s advanced audio distribution profile (A2DP),.   Now Wi-Fi Direct has emerged to change safety.

And GM has emerged as the Pied Piper of Wi-Fi Direct after revealing its own internal studies demonstrating how Wi-Fi Direct technology in cars might be used to detect the presence of pedestrians’ smartphones by detecting their Wi-Fi signals.  ( -How Your Smartphone Could Stop a Car From Running You Over)  In this way, Wi-Fi Direct could be used as an enhancement to existing sensor-based safety systems to help drivers avoid pedestrians – or to at least be alerted to their presence – in a low-latency sub-second manner – without connecting to a wireless cellular network.

V2X via smartphone integration

The announcement of GM's new findings follows a presentation at Telematics Update V2X for Auto Safety and Mobility 2012 in Novi, Mich., where GM engineer Donald Grimm presented a vision of V2X technology deployment via aftermarket devices and smartphones.  The new Wi-Fi Direct concept from GM published last week solves a problem raised by attendees of the TU event, regarding the detection of pedestrians in a V2X-enhanced world built around Digital Short Range Communication technology – the 802;11p-based technology upon which V2X is being defined.

DSRC-equipped cars will have no way of detecting pedestrians.  But Wi-Fi Direct-enhanced cars will have this ability and in fact could deliver this technology today.

By swapping DSRC technology for Wi-Fi Direct, GM is highlighting the shortcomings of DSRC technology, the adoption of which has created a chicken and egg scenario.  DSRC technology will work best once all cars equipped with the technology to enable enhanced traffic and collision avoidance applications.

But DSRC technology has no subscription or revenue component, making it an expensive vehicle enhancement requiring additional hardware, software and enabling infrastructure. To succeed, DSRC is ikely to require a top down government mandate and a homogenization of global standards to take hold.  GM is pointing the way toward a life-saving technology already widely distributed among consumers on their mobile devices.

In the presentation given at the TU event earlier this year, the GM engineer suggested the possibility of DSRC technology being built into smartphones – a clever but expensive and pointless exercise, particular in light of Wi-Fi Direct’s availability.  Further impairing the vision of smartphone deployment of DSRC are issues of power consumption and in-vehicle docking of the device.

The beauty of the new GM proposition is its use of existing devices – smartphones – and existing standards-based technology – Wi-Fi Direct – to save lives without the creation of new standards, new hardware or new mandates.  Bike messengers and pedestrians wanting to take advantage of the new technology might be able to install an app to enhance the sensing process.


The rapid adoption of Wi-Fi Direct will get far greater impetus in a competitive environment, such as that implied by GM’s research and potential implementation, than by a collaborative standards-setting activity such as that associated with the ongoing V2X activities or the mandate approach characterized by Europe’s ill-conceived eCall initiative.  GM researchers are proposing that cars simply tap into the surrounding wireless signaling environment to help avoid collisions.

In a similar way, roadside Bluetooth sensors are increasingly being deployed by organizations such as TrafficCast, Siemens and others to glean highly accurate insights regarding traffic flow from passing motorists and their Bluetooth-equipped smartphones.  There are wider implications and a growing roster of new applications enabled by this ad hoc sensing process.

The most important takeaway of all, of course, is the critical role of the smartphone as a self-contained safety system in the car.  A Bluetooth- and Wi-Fi Direct-enhanced device is capable wirelessly communicating its location up to 600 feet away as well as sensing nearby devices.

This sensing and contextual awareness has life-saving implications for drivers and pedestrians and the differentiating market development opportunities are emerging faster than an application download.  It is for this very reason that open application platforms in cars in the form of smartphone interfaces are so important.

In an ironic twist, the deployment of safety systems taking advantage of Wi-Fi Direct signaling are likely to benefit from existing research into DSRC signal propagation and interpretation.  So all that DSRC work won’t be going to waste.

The scanning for the presence of pedestrians is clearly a local, on-board application in the car, but there will be opportunities to process the sensor inputs in a cloud platform for added value insights.  And it is likely that such a system will need upgrades or updates on a regular basis as enhancements to the detection algorithms are discovered.

It’s just another way smartphones are driving live-saving changes from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.  Wi-Fi Direct can save lives, but not if smartphones are banned or their functionality is compromised.

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