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V2X technology: Just around the bend?

Constantly broadcasting and receiving messages (Photo: johnason / iStock)

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Gareth Watson
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Traffic accidents boil down to milliseconds; the difference between braking in time and braking too late. V2X technology can buy you those precious milliseconds – and its introduction is closer than you may think.

Connected vehicles are clearly one of the hottest tech topics of the year 2016. Just this week, hundreds of experts gathered at the ConnecteDriver conference in Brussels to discuss the manifold ways in which future vehicles might communicate.

For Jürgen Kunz, there is only one connection he dedicates his time and effort to: the one that saves lives. Kunz is a V2X expert at Continental's Passive Safety & Sensorics business unit. Their goal: to enable vehicles to virtually "see" around corners - so that they can anticipate and avoid dangerous situations. Mr. Kunz lent his expertise to tell us how engineers can make this happen.

Cutting out the middle man

"V2X, as a term, is like premium beer - there are many meanings!" Mr Kunz quips. "In general, it means we wirelessly connect vehicles with infrastructure as well as other vehicles - motorcycles, trucks - and even with pedestrians. So it involves many different technologies." His baby, however, is that of dedicated short range communication (DSRC in the US). "When I talk about V2X, I'm talking about direct communication with ad-hoc networks - connecting with others based on proximity".

Think of it like your home WiFi - when you're within range you receive broadcasted messages; when you're out of range, you don't. Known as ITS-G5 in Europe, the technology used for direct vehicle-communication involves radio chips that broadcast and receive messages in the licensed Wi-Fi band of 5.9 GHz. The major difference to your home WiFi is, however, that there is no service provider.

Cutting out that "middle man" brings several advantages: The connection can function totally independently from other networks and you have no contractual worries. "Have you ever tried sending a WhatsApp from the stadium during halftime at a soccer game?" Kunz asks. "It just doesn't work quickly like you are used to because of network issues." Direct communication has the potential to circumvent those.

However, one obvious benefit trumps them all: speed - a crucial factor in safety situations: any driving scenarios that require the driver to act or react instantly also require the exchange of information with very low latencies. "We're using the technology to buy more reaction time," says Mr Kunz. "Then, we can use that extra time to avoid an accident or to significantly reduce accident severity."

Take the case of emergency braking, for example. Picture yourself behind a truck that is behind a car that brakes suddenly. You only have the braking lights of the truck to alarm you. With V2X communication, the braking car would send you this information directly. "We use this technology as an environmental sensor at close distances - when very quick evaluations of the environment are required. It can be used alongside other sensors to provide another source of data that can be compared," Kunz explains.

Constant communication

Context is everything. And it is contextual information that is sent and received once a wireless communication is established between a vehicle and another vehicle or infrastructure. "We have standardized messages both in Europe and the US. They are a little bit different, but in Europe, for example, there is the 'Cooperative Awareness Message'." This message contains various types of important data, as Kunz explains: "There is mandatory data which includes vehicle type, speed, heading and sensor data. There is also situational data, for example if dangerous goods are being carried, and lastly, there is optional data - data pertaining to things like occupancy or doors being open."

You might be wondering: does this mean these messages are constantly being broadcast? Yes. As Mr Kunz explains, this is made possible only because these are very small packets of data. "It's not like video - which is data rich and requires streaming etc. We want short messages, sent quickly."

Safer from day one

The technology is actually in a very mature state - thanks to extensive testing in a field research project called simTD: a joint project by leading German vehicle manufacturers, components suppliers, telecommunication companies and research institutions. "You could really deploy it quite easily," Kunz claims. In fact, in 2014, GM stated that they will bring such technology to market with the 2017 Cadillac CTS.

So let's say it enters the market within the next few years - what benefits can we expect to see immediately? "The improvements for safety are pretty clear. simTD showed us that even with a 5% installation rate, benefits were already visible. So if you have an area with high traffic density and some vehicles are V2X equipped, driving safety will significantly improve because these drivers will influence all others with their behavior," Kunz explains.

Emergency vehicles could warn you of their presence via V2X (Photo: Sproetniek / iStock)

Where V2X will really come into its own is making the invisible visible. Consider the 'Electronic Emergency Brake Light'. This system warns a driver that an out-of-sight vehicle is braking. Another feature, the 'Emergency Vehicle Warning' would mean you'd be notified about an approaching emergency vehicle before seeing the blue lights or hearing the siren.

However, raising awareness is only the first step. The 'Left-Turn Assist' for instance not only warns the driver at an intersection of an oncoming, out-of-sight vehicle. It could also intervene with braking if the warning is not heeded. And that's still not the end of the opportunities, as Kunz goes on to explain: "The technology is being trialed in mobile roadworks. It could also be used to enable a conversation between vehicles and traffic lights or road signs. That way, we could optimize traffic flow dynamically."

It’s not all about the cars!

Mr Kunz is adamant that this technology will play an important role in automated driving and the quest for an accident free world. But accidents don't just happen between cars. What about other vulnerable road users? How might they benefit from this technology?

"I'm here!" - V2X would make vulnerable road users more visible (Photo: DetWe / iStock)

Vulnerable road users include motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians. The problem is usually their visibility. "You could avoid so many crashes with motorcyclists just by making them more visible - so they could broadcast a message saying I'm here, I'm here, I'm here," says Kunz.

The same goes for pedestrians. "There are different kinds of technologies competing. You can use the infrastructure, cloud based solutions on smart phones, cameras on board. Or you could directly detect pedestrians who are broadcasting from a 'tag', for example in their bag." As Kunz points out, progress in this field is rapidly gaining momentum: "The major question is now how best to detect vulnerable road users. This will definitely be one of the hot topics this year."

So, in keeping with short and fast messages: stay tuned!

About our expert:

Jürgen Kunz is based in Frankfurt, Germany and is Head of Business Development for the Occupant Safety & Inertial Sensors segment of the Passive Safety & Sensorics business unit at Continental's Chassis & Safety Division.

What do you see as the biggest challenges of V2X technology? What are your ideas how to use it or do you have questions about it? Leave a comment below!

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