One small step for transport; one giant leap for road safety

Thinking Highways
By Chris Skinner April 29, 2014 14:58

One small step for transport; one giant leap for road safety

Chris Skinner ponders the reasons for what appears to be a flattening-out of the global road deaths improvement curve. What is hampering our progress?

Now well into the 21st century there is still no sign of any dramatic improvement in world road safety as cynically measured by road deaths and accident statistics. The reasons for this lack of real progress, let alone the order of magnitude I believe is feasible, include the lack of coordination and collaboration among five significant stakeholders:

  • Road agencies and regulatory authorities, including related standards development organisations [SDO];
  • Vehicle designers and manufacturers and related SDOs;
  • Telecommunications systems developers, integrators and service providers;
  • Human systems integration experts who deal with reducing driver distraction for example; and
  • Classical road safety agencies who seek to educate drivers and other road users and to influence the other groups.

There are many examples of cooperating among some of the above groups but none that I am aware of where all five are engaged. Even when they are there is such a wide range of issues on their respective agendas.

The consensus that a reduction in road fatalities is the biggest challenge does not yet exist. Even when that does occur there are few candidates for concerted action to achieve a dramatic improvement. The road safety people talk about a 30 per cent reduction when that is clearly inadequate. They do so because they cannot imagine how any greater reduction could be achieved.

Over the last two months two very positive events have occurred in this space:

  • The United States Department of Transportation [USDOT] announced on 3February 2014 that it would begin laying the foundations for a wireless network that allows vehicles to communicate with each other and with roadside infrastructure, referring to the Connected Vehicle Architecture based on IEEE 802.11p and IEEE 1609 Wireless Access Vehicle Environment [WAVE] standards
  • The European Commission [EC] announcement on 12February that the European Telecommunications Standards Institute [ETSI] and the European Committee for Standardisation [CEN] had completed the basic set of standards necessary to make connected cars a reality[1]

Together these provide worldwide support for development of safe, effective and sustainable vehicle connectivity – a giant step forward for transportation. On the other hand this only constitutes the first of a thousand steps to achieve the order of magnitude reduction in road deaths that I believe must be our goal. It is no good aiming to get half way to the moon – either we go all the way or we fail. So what are all the other steps needed to be taken? Here are some issues and work tasks that occur to me and there will many others that emerge as we go along:

  • A concept of operations must be formulated. It is nowhere near good enough to establish the technical feasibility of some new technology – there must be an agreed operational concept that is open to verification and validation in every way practicable.
  • Already I am hearing reservations being expressed on the effects of telecommunications congestion in the operating channels of WAVE 5.850-5.925GHz band. And the worst part is that this congestion may occur in crowded road traffic conditions when there is greatest need for collision avoidance.
  • Secondly there is still an old-fashioned idea that the connectivity will be used to warn drivers of imminent or present dangerous conditions. The fallacy of this approach is that the human ability to receive and to respond to this warning may be far too slow to avoid the dangerous condition.
  • This means a much greater degree of autonomy in the vehicle but this is tune requires a set of constraints and business rules that are agreed by the driver or vehicle operator and furthermore are sanctioned by the regulatory and standardisation authorities.
  • How can such approvals be granted? Only as a result of scientifically based test and evaluation leading to exhaustive verification and validation of concepts and performance criteria, plus a formal safety case based on detailed risk assessments and mitigations. Altogether this constitutes a massive undertaking that is not yet even acknowledged let alone planned or budgeted.
  • Then there is the less onerous but universally relevant issue of driver distraction from their primary responsibilities as vehicle operator. Drivers have become accustomed to listening to audio signals at the same time as operating the vehicle and observing the visual signs and behaviours of other road users. Added to this we permit hands-free audio communication and now apparently may also permit visual reference to maps and other in-vehicle dynamic information on screens.
  • Where does this end? When does this environment exceed the acceptable level of distraction? How indeed do we even measure such distraction in any objective manner?
  • Even when we can measure and control such distraction how can we improve the behaviour of drivers in such an environment? Have we reached the most compelling reason for driverless cars?

Keep CALM and carry on

There is a predilection in the road transport community to resolve issue by demonstration of some new initiative in practical field trials as though this form of qualitative verification is sufficient. I don’t agree at all and furthermore point out that such imprecise approaches would never be sanctioned in air transport so why do we permit this in road transport?

The next most important development step after the concept of operation is to formulate the systems architecture and this has been done up to a point in the Communications Access Land Mobility [CALM] standards; however there is not yet general acceptance of this approach and indeed there seems to be an impression that other network services are unnecessary with WAVE even when the potential limitations of WAVE have not been disputed, let alone disproven.

The most important contribution from CALM is to recognise the wireless networking is a rich and ever changing technological domain, and therefore cooperative mobility for road vehicles needs to embrace both the opportunities and the challenges brought by this rapid development.

In the radio-frequency spectrum alone there are many bands that can be employed, using many available standards and technologies. It is unwise to settle on only one of these and thereby condemn the network architecture to rapid obsolescence as new encoding and bandwidth utilisation techniques become available.

CALM permits the integration of various wireless technologies is a layered architecture that has been the underlying secret of success in most networking implementations, most notably the internet. This should be affirmed as the approach for cooperative mobility in networked road vehicles.

The bottom line then is that the two inspiring announcements from USDOT and the EC in February open up a whole new vista and the real possibility of working towards an order of magnitude reduction in road deaths.

The sobering corollary is that there remains to be put in place a formal program including the development of a concept of operations, a versatile system architecture that avoids premature technology obsolescence, a formal systems engineering management approach that includes formal and quantitative research, development, test and evaluation and concludes with formal verification and validation of the original concepts, goals and objectives.

My question then is who will do this? I would like to see the overall program subject to oversight of the United Nations though one of its agencies such as UNESCO. Why not?

Christopher J Skinner BSc(Eng) MEngSc MIET MIEAust MACS CPEng is Principal of,  DISplay Pty Ltd, based in Cremorne, New South Wales, Australia

[1] EC press release IP/14/141 dated 12 February 2014

Thinking Highways
By Chris Skinner April 29, 2014 14:58