UPDATE 4/29/19: Toyota will not deploy its vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communication technology on vehicles in the U.S. in 2021 as previously planned. The company said in a statement that its reasoning to suspend the program, originally detailed in April 2018, is based on a "need for greater automotive industry commitment as well as federal government support to preserve the 5.9 GHz spectrum band for DSRC [Dedicated Short Range Communications]." Without naming specific companies, Toyota appeared to be accusing its competitors of dragging their feet on this new technology. Toyota is no longer providing any timeline for rolling out these V2X systems but says it will "continue to reevaluate the deployment environment" going forward.
With or without industry competitors and government regulators, Toyota says it will forge ahead and start rolling out a long-known safety technology in new vehicles it sells in the United States, even if it’s not fully useful until everyone gets on board.
Starting in 2021, the automaker says, it will begin deploying technology that enables real-time communications between cars and other road users. These “connected car” systems will send messages that warn motorists of imminent collisions, changing road conditions, and other traffic hazards. Eventually, they could provide information to automated driving systems.
“We can help drivers realize a future with zero fatalities from crashes, better traffic flow, and less congestion,” said Jim Lentz, chief executive officer of Toyota Motor North America.
Although the underlying technology-Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC)-has been developed and vetted for more than a decade, there’s disagreement throughout the industry on whether DSRC-based communications are the long-term answer for transmitting these messages. Cellular technology that’s less established but also available now, and ostensibly going to get better with the coming introduction of 5G, is favored as a conduit for these safety communications by a growing number of automotive and tech companies.
The choice between the two technologies is crucial, because the more widely these systems are deployed over time, the more effective they become. A vehicle cannot receive a warning message from a car entering an upcoming intersection, for example, if the other car is not equipped with the same system. A split in market approaches throughout the industry would likely render both systems less effective.
In the waning days of the Obama administration, the federal government proposed rules that would mandate the DSRC approach, aiming to achieve the critical mass of users necessary to make this all worthwhile. But to date, the current Department of Transportation administration has not acted upon that proposal. It remains in limbo.
Cars Could Converse Soon
Which is why Toyota’s decision to move forward carries both weight and risk. Proponents of the DSRC approach to these communications, which comprise vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V), vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I), and vehicle-to-pedestrian (V2P) designations and are often wrapped together under the banner of vehicle-to-everything (V2X), argue that manufacturers can start saving lives sooner than if they wait for a consensus to materialize.
“I’ll grant you that DSRC is the modern-day equivalent of Morse code, but guess what, Morse code still works,” says Gregory D. Winfree, director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and a former U.S. Department of Transportation official. “We don’t have 5G yet, so why don’t we introduce this lifesaving technology now and get American drivers familiar with it? As this newfangled technology comes online, we can introduce it.
“I am technology agnostic,” he said, “but the technologies under development now are not ready for the market. With DSRC, we can start saving lives now and get away from a cultural tolerance for what is, in essence, carnage on our roadways.”
More than 37,000 Americans were killed in traffic crashes in 2016, according to federal records, a number that has been rising at its fastest pace in half a century.
Toyota aims to start rolling out its DSRC-based systems throughout its lineup beginning in the mid-2020s. The automaker’s plans are the most comprehensive to date, but it actually won’t be the first automaker to deploy V2V in North America. General Motors has equipped certain Cadillac CTS sedans with V2V systems, and in 2017, Volkswagen unveiled plans to start using DSRC-based connected systems in Europe.
In the United States, these systems use seven channels on the 5.9-GHz spectrum that have been reserved for automotive safety applications by the Federal Communications Commission. For now, these systems will transmit messages that serve as warnings to motorists; vehicle systems will not take action on their own based on the V2X inputs.
Eventually, information from V2X systems can be fed to automated driving systems for use by their decision-making algorithms. One advantage V2X systems have is that, unlike the other sensors aboard automated vehicles, they can provide information on imminent hazards not based on line of sight.
This is the second time in recent years that Toyota has positioned itself as a front-runner in adding new safety technology while its competitors lagged. When a group of 20 automakers reached a voluntary agreement to equip all new vehicles with automated emergency braking by 2022, Toyota took its efforts a step further and pledged to install the systems as standard equipment in all new cars by the end of 2017. The company says that 92 percent of its Toyota and Lexus vehicles now sold contain automated emergency braking systems.
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At the time of that announcement, the future of automated emergency braking seemed nothing but promising. In the case of DSRC, which has been developed over the past 13 years with a group of global automakers, infrastructure organizations, and the DOT, its future is nonetheless very much uncertain. But Toyota’s announcement gives it a sudden shot of renewed momentum.
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