Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Good and Bad of Car to Car Communication

OnStar and electronic toll-road transponders - two ways in which you can already be tracked

There's been a lot of talk in the past few years about "Car to Car" communication as a way of reducing the frequency or even severity of multi-vehicle collisions. The US government has stated intentions to mandate Car to Car communication by 2017 (that is, to have a bill put into effect by 2017, not that cars would have to have this technology by 2017).

On the surface, this is a great idea, and many of the technologies involved already exist, even if they may require further refinement or expansion to suit this role. There's no doubt that the majority of the players in C2C (what I'll refer to "Car to Car" as from here on) have good intentions - car crashes still continue to claim more than 33,000 lives per year in the United States, though the numbers have been trending downwards since the early '80's, and are now at the lowest they've been since World War II. There are, of course, a far greater number of people that sustain life-changing injuries of some kind that these statistics don't cover. Canada's statistics are slightly lower overall than the US on a "per km traveled" and "per 100,000 persons" basis, but car crashes remain a very real concern.

So why am I not entirely pleased with C2C? Several reasons, actually.The premise of C2C is that vehicles would broadcast their relative position, heading, and speed over a proposed range of approximately 250-300 metres. In practice, with buildings and landforms potentially interfering, I'm going to suggest that the systems will end up having a greater output, say perhaps 500 metres. Heck, the 10 metre claimed range of my Bluetooth handsfree speakerphone is in reality easily double that in real life, as my phone often remains paired inside my steel-walled workplace as my car sits well away from the building out in the lot.

While I'm the last guy you'll see walking around with a tin-foil hat, I will acknowledge a certain amount of concern for the amount of radio waves we already saturate ourselves with. That is only a little, tiny part of my dislike for this continual broadcast; my concern is how easily this information could be used against you.

Proponents of C2C claim that vehicles will not be able to be individually identified by their C2C information, but I call bullshit. Just like your computer's IP Address can be used to track and even (not all that) roughly determine your location - how many pop-ups have you had that use your town's name? - it is unlikely that there won't be some kind of unique identifier or backdoor means of determining which vehicle is transmitting.

Further, if you are the only vehicle in a given area, it would not be difficult for the police to quite easily determine which vehicle it is that is broadcasting a speed in excess of the posted limit, even without the added bonus of heading and location information. Yes, folks, your car will tell on you, and it is not terribly difficult to imagine this data being used against you.

Similarly, much as is currently the case with electronic toll-road transponders, it would be dead easy for stationary nodes to monitor which vehicles pass by, and the ability for such information to be processed and stored already exists. Think about it; in amongst the several thousand cars on a given stretch of Ontario's Highway 407, most have entered and will exit the toll-road at different points, yet each will get billed for their usage, with the statements showing the exact times each way-point was crossed, a technology that has been in operation since 1997. 1997; when a 80 GB hard drive was huge, and the internet was dial-up. Think the technology has advanced since?

It should be pointed out that built-in telematics systems like GM's OnStar are already not only capable of tracking and transmitting speed, location, and specific vehicle ID (as well as lots of operational data), but actually already do do this, even if that information is said not to be used unless required for the service to function. It is both possible and legal, however, to disable these telematics systems, should the owner wish. Modern airbag modules also store a 5-10 second running snapshot of some vehicle parameters (brake application, speed, steering wheel angle, ESC/ABS operation, seat-belt use, etc.), stored in the event of airbag deployment - that "black-box" functionality can not be readily disabled without potentially affecting airbag operation. 

I don't consider myself a conspiracy theorist kind of guy, but do keep in mind that C2C is being pushed by the same government that has been steadily whittling away at its citizen's civil liberties in the name of security since 9/11. The connection isn't entirely implausible, nor is it totally unrealistic. Deliberate or not, it's very easy to see the system getting abused post-implementation, just as it's now possible to use cell phones for spying, a practice already acknowledged to occur. Where's that tin-foil hat?

Another concern for me is what I like to call "the ABS Effect". When vehicles with anti-lock brakes first came on the market, there was a pronounced increase in rear-end collisions with ABS-equipped models. This was not because they stopped so fast that non-ABS vehicles hit them (though there probably were more than a few of those instances too). It was because their drivers felt overly confident about the ability of their vehicles to stop faster, so they followed closer behind the car ahead, and took greater risks, having less concern for their stopping distances. The same thing happens with those who drive all-wheel drive models in inclement weather, and there's doubtless some degree of the ABS Effect occurring today with all post-2011 cars having mandatory stability control. Guaranteed that drivers will yet again put excessive trust in C2C, being even less aware of their situation than they are today. Never mind that for C2C to be truly effective, 100% of the vehicle fleet would have to have perfectly functioning C2C systems.

Which brings me to my final concern: implementation and serviceability. As a full-time working technician, I can tell you that despite ABS - a key component in stability control - being in wide use for more than 25 years, it still has durability issues when exposed to the real world environment of vibration and corrosion. Computers are hardly foolproof either - I just replaced the engine computer in a 2005 Buick that had only 25,000 km on it (did it die of boredom, perhaps?). Diagnosing and repairing the existing wireless components in today's cars, such as keyless entry, tire pressure monitoring (TPMS), and passive entry/starting, is already a challenge. (Let me tell you that TPMS, required in the US since 2008, has been a headache, as these systems are fragile and trouble-prone, and with no standardized implementation beyond transmitter frequencies, they vary in service ease between piece of cake and piece of, well, you get it.)

So when these C2C systems take a dirt nap, or worse yet, give erroneous information that results in a collision, who's going to be responsible? Will it be required by law that these systems be kept in working order as the vehicle ages or gets damaged? How will that be enforced? Will you legally be able to opt out? What are the legal implications if you're involved in a collision and your C2C system is determined to have been faulty? Will your insurance still cover you?

These are just a few of the questions that need to be addressed before C2C ever sees reality, and it's tough to imagine it getting rammed down the throats of US citizens, a nation that still does not have country-wide seat belt use laws (New Hampshire only requires their use by minors, for example).

There's little doubt in my mind that some form of C2C, just like fully autonomous vehicles, will eventually come into play. Likewise, I do think that there are very real benefits to such technologies. I believe it is still too soon however, and that there are still too many unanswered questions and unaddressed concerns for them to be mandated into use in the near future.

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