The future of vehicular networks

So I’m collaborating on a journal paper with Thinus Booysen, a Media lab colleague and expert in vehicular networks. The idea of vehicular networks and all the possibilities they present are truly mind boggling and I thought I might share some of those possibilities and exciting developments.

What are vehicular networks you ask? The above diagram, taken from the mobile communications group of the Technische Universität München, provides an overview. It’s basically a network of cars that are in constant communication. Each car knows where it is, where it’s going and basically any other quantity that it can measure. Not only has every car been made “self aware”, it can also communicate with any other car on the road.

Just take a minute to think of all the possibilities. The first one that comes to mind is road safety. If all cars know where all other cars are, cars headed for an imminent crash can warn their respective drivers and even apply autonomous control to avoid accidents.

Not only can drivers be informed about delays to their destination, but traffic lights can be connected to the communications network, to most efficiently route traffic in real time. This creates a system where the road network always serves the current needs of the users on the network.

There are obviously many advantages to such a system and I’m as you’re reading this, you can think of many more. Now of course you’re thinking that this is all well and good, but it probably won’t happen in our lifetime. Who knows how far this technology is from becoming feasible.

That’s the really exciting bit about vehicular networks. It seems, to me, after researching vehicle-to-vehicle communication protocols, that we’re basically there.

For the most part, proposed vehicular networks use well known communication protocols. They propose using the CAN bus in the car to allow data to be collected and a MOST ring to connect media devices to distribute media throughout a vehicle. Want to transmit data from the car to some server on the Internet? Use WiMAX, Wi-Fi or cellular communications. These are all high speed communication standards that, except for Wi-Fi, support high mobility.

One of the novel communication standards, based on Wi-Fi, is WAVE (IEEE 802.11p). The WAVE standard specifies a complete protocol stack for vehicular networks, including resource management, security services, TCP/IP integration and low latency message transmissions for safety applications.

WAVE allows for vehicle-to-vehicle communications and communications with road side units (RSUs). RSU are static WAVE units that will be put up on lamp poles, traffic lights and traffic signs. RSUs allow vehicles to interact with the road infrastructure and to bridge the gaps where vehicles are sparse.

So, where to go from here? Well, some great vehicular applications should still be created that use the underlying communications infrastructure to make everyone’s lives easier and to deliver on the promises made. The standards still require work, but from what I’ve seen, they are at a point where large scale trials are possible. Most importantly, governments, car manufacturers and drivers should start seeing vehicular networks as the way forward for road safety, traffic monitoring and general happiness.

With this in mind, I believe we should start building the things. Getting a city wide vehicular network up and running in Cape Town, test it, improve it and make a national vehicular network a reality. Yes, there are still some issues, but I don’t think we should wait until the standards have been perfected and technology has moved on. Start hacking and making cool stuff and see the tech evolve from there.

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