The pendulum swings back toward connected-vehicle technology

A decade ago, the new technology that promised to dramatically curtail traffic carnage was connected cars that transmitted critical safety messages to one another.

Along came Google’s self-driving car project, and the entire auto industry’s focus shifted to autonomous driving technology.

In recent months, the pendulum has swung back toward connected-vehicle technology. Skepticism that autonomous vehicles are launching sometime soon has mushroomed. At the same time, connected-car technology, known as V2X, has advanced.

But the long-simmering debate over which message format should be used to send these safety messages — cellular or Dedicated Short Range Communications, called DSRC — has only grown more acrimonious, with Toyota and Volkswagen launching in one direction and Ford and Qualcomm pushing in another.

There may be a simpler solution: Launch both.

Global supplier Continental has designed a module that packages transmission capabilities for both DSRC and cellular signals into a single telematics unit. This isn’t a test case. At a media event Wednesday, Continental officials said they already have a customer under contract and production is slated to begin in 2023.

“If every country would decide today, we could pick a direction, but we have no idea when they’ll make decisions,” said Tamara Snow, Continental’s director of innovation in North America. “For us, we can’t sit around and wait for others to decide. … It’s important for us to have solutions in both so that we’re covered either way.”

Continental isn’t waiting for orders to arrive from automakers to deploy these systems, either — it’s working with cities to get V2X deployed in roadside units attached to street lamps and traffic lights. There’s a benefit for cities, in that they can get fresh insights on traffic flow and potential hazards on their roadways.

Getting cities on board helps the automotive industry make immediate use of V2X technology. It might be a decade or longer until a critical mass of vehicles has the necessary hardware to send and receive these messages; thus, it will be that long until this technology can start reducing traffic crashes and deaths in statistically meaningful numbers. With V2X installed in cities, that lengthy ramp-up may be shortened.

“We’re attacking this from both sides,” said Zack Bolton, a systems manager at Continental. “We can’t get enough vehicles right away, so we’re talking with cities about this, and this isn’t so far out of the realm for what universities, cities and subdivisions want to offer their citizens. And drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians reap some benefit.”

If such a dual-mode module can work without adding latency or other complications to these critical communications, then those benefits can be measured in lives saved. And it offers automakers global scale.

Those traffic crash reductions won’t likely be realized for more than a decade. But there’s no longer an excuse for waiting.

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