Crowdsourcing Ideas for Connected Vehicles

Back in August 2010, Unwired covered the Department of Transport (DOT) IntelliDrive initiative that plans to create a wireless network to connect vehicles, municipal infrastructure and consumer hand-held devices using dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) in the 5.9GHz band. There has been disappointingly little progress toward widespread adoption of DSRC in the 10 years since the spectrum was allocated for intelligent transportation (ITS) applications. Pilots and schemes rolled out by regional authorities have focused on collision avoidance and fare collection, but failed to ignite an explosion of innovative ideas within the developer community. The diagram below shows the DOT’s original vision of DSRC used between vehicular and roadside systems within the National ITS Communications Architecture – dry stuff to be sure.

Figure 1 – DOT National ITS Communications Architecture (2004) Great Ideas, Come On Down! So it was good news for IntelliDrive when the DOT announced the Connected Vehicle Technology Challenge in January, inviting the general public to submit smart ideas for how DSRC could improve transportation. The competition closed to submissions on May 1st and judging will continue through the end of June. In true American Idol tradition, voting is open to the public until the end of May although the DOT has neither revealed who the final judges are (other than describing them as a ‘panel of experts from the DOT’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Program’) nor whether the public voting results will influence their decisions. It might have been preferable for some outside influence from, say, technology entrepreneurs who have real-world experience of converting innovative concepts to business reality – not something Big Government is known for. Regardless, six winners will be chosen and later honored at the 2011 World Congress on Intelligent Transportation Systems in Orlando, Fla., in October where they’ll have a chance to present their winning ideas and hopefully attract commercial interest; there are no cash prizes or promise of grant funds. Without proper financial backing to potentially transition the winning submissions from paper to real product, the whole competition seems rather pointless. One can’t help but think that the DOT would have been smarter to partner with a university innovation cluster, business incubator, VC or group of high net worth individuals to dangle the prospect of funding and commercial development to successful participants. But hey, they’ll pay for your hotel and happy meals at Disneyland so quit complaining. A total of 77 submissions were received by the deadline; an impressive turnout. Looking through them, they essentially break down into the following categories:

The most popular categories were Driver Alert Warning systems (18%), and concepts for wireless systems network architecture (17%). While ideas for using DSRC for Collision Avoidance accounted for just 4% of entries, one from Howard University garnered 56 votes from the public (most entries have less than five votes each).

Where’s Transit? Interestingly, ideas related to transit made up just 2.5% of the total entries with two lone submissions on how DSRC might improve passenger transportation. The first – a joint entry from DKS Associates and King County Metro, Wash., – examined whether an existing ITS network built by King County in the 4.9MGz public safety band satisfied the DOT’s vision of an all-encompassing wireless network despite not operating in the mandated 5.9GHz DRSC frequency and thus not currently being interoperable with future systems developed in that band. King County outlined that it chose 4.9GHz due to the ready availability of spectrum and equipment during the design phase in 2007-2008, and interoperability with public safety organizations, including law enforcement. Unlike DSRC, 4.9GHz is a well-accepted standard in common use today. Nevertheless King County recognized the importance of long-term interoperability with DSRC, and how a modular system such as the one they’ve deployed could be upgraded to support 5.9GHz radios alongside existing 4.9GHz, acting as a bridge between two unified technologies. The authors, John Toone and Bryan Nace, made a good case for how their deployment embraced 'the best principles of both the US DOT IntelliDrive and the DHS/FCC Public Safety goals.' Figure 2 – King County Transit ITS Architecture (2011) The second transit-oriented submission from a group at Texas A&M University examined how DSRC could be implemented to create an ad-hoc wireless network between transit vehicles, passengers and pedestrians to exchange real-time transit information, while factoring in data such as passenger counts on buses and trains. The authors argued that a decentralized DSRC-based system would provide more accurate and timely information than existing solutions such as smart phone apps, while adding a layer of real-time interactivity for trip planning, vehicle rerouting, and service query. With on-board wireless systems becoming increasingly common in buses and trains for AVL, passenger Wi-Fi and remote CCTV access, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to add a DSRC-compliant 5.9GHz radio to interface with IntelliDrive applications such as that suggested by A&M, as long as the on-board systems are extensible and preferably open-source based. DOT should be congratulated for encouraging the spirit of innovation with the Connected Vehicle Challenge. While it might have been more commercially driven, it has clearly stimulated ideas on how to implement DSRC in meaningful ways. Hopefully this will prompt CIOs within transit agencies to consider how wireless solutions they deploy today might evolve to interact with IntelliDrive solutions tomorrow. -- Jim Baker is CEO at Xentrans Inc., a wireless project management consultancy based in San Francisco and London. A C-level wireless industry veteran, Baker has been involved in many deployments of wireless technologies on passenger transportation worldwide and is a recognized industry expert on Wi-Fi, 3G and 4G convergence. He is chair of the Technology Committee at the Joint Council on Transit Wireless Communications [] that is developing a strategic plan for implementation of wireless technologies in mass transit. Contact Baker via LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter.