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Ford investigates creating a mobile data network using the cars themselves

By embedding advanced Wi-Fi in every car, vehicles could become nodes on a gigantic collaborative mesh network that could mitigate traffic and prevent accidents

A car can already tap into the mobile wireless network: accessing navigation information, connecting to emergency services and even downloading and streaming content to in-vehicle entertainment systems. But what if the car went one step further? Instead of being the end-node of a network like any other smartphone or laptop, what if the car could be used to create a network? What if it could connect to other cars to form constantly morphing mobile mesh network that helped drivers avoid accidents, identify traffic jams miles before they encounter them and even act as a relay point for Internet access?

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These are the questions Ford Motor Company chief technology officer and vice president of research Paul Mascarenas is not only asking but is pretty close to answering. Mascarenas was recently in Chicago, the country’s most congested major market, to show what ad hoc networking in vehicles could do to save drivers hours of commute time and even save a few lives.

Ford believes the key is Wi-Fi, but not the ordinary access point and receiving device setup. What Ford envisions, Mascarenas said, is a high-powered, heavily encrypted Wi-Fi that establishes point-to-point connections between cars within a half-mile radius. Those connections could be used to communicate vital information between vehicles, either triggering alerts to the driver or interpreted by the vehicle’s computer. An intelligent car slamming on its brakes could communicate to all of the vehicles behind it that it’s coming to rapid halt, giving the driver that much more warning that he too needs to hit the brakes.

But because these cars are networked—the car in front of yours is connected to the car in front it and so forth—in a distributed mesh, an intelligent vehicle can know if cars miles down the road are slamming on their brakes, alerting the driver to potential traffic jams. Given enough vehicles with the technology, individual cars become nodes in a constantly changing, self-aware network that can not only monitor what’s going on in the immediate vicinity, but across a citywide traffic grid, Mascarenas said.

“Think of the cost of congestion. The average time lost to commuting a year is the equivalent of one full work week. In Chicago, it’s more like 70 hours,” Mascarenas said. “We’re doing a lot of work to determine how many vehicles need to be connected to get these kinds of benefits. For traffic management, we believe we need one in every 10 vehicles connected. For public safety, the number is higher: one in every three.”

To get that kind of penetration is going to take time and some prodding by U.S. Department of Transportation, but Mascarenas said that Ford believes it could be accomplished in 10 years if older vehicles could be retrofitted with radios that could send data even if they weren’t equipped to receive and interpret information on their own.

Ford has put together its own intelligent vehicle task force --consisting of company planners, engineers and scientists -- to explore ways to drive connectivity solutions into its own vehicle lines. But it’s biggest initiative has been to tie the connected car concept to Sync, it’s in-vehicle application platform that uses the driver’s smartphone to connect to the Internet (CP: Ford details the connected car).

Ford already offers an application called Sync Destinations, which access real-time traffic information to help drivers plan their commutes and avoid traffic in collaboration with vehicle navigation systems in the car. By adding intelligent vehicle connectivity to the equation, Ford could take Sync Destinations one step further, drawing not just on traffic information from the Internet cloud but immediate information drawn from the vehicles around it—cars that are miles down the highway could signal traffic jams to a car just pulling out of the parking garage. Ford has been aggressively promoting Sync over the last year, announcing new application partners like Pandora and OpenBeak as well as dropping the Sync price tag on all new vehicles from $395 to $295 and is making it a standard feature on its higher-end vehicle models (A subscription to Sync Services, which includes Destiantions, is $60 a year after an intial three-year introductory period).

But Mascarenas said Ford and other automakers can build other applications into the intelligent vehicle network. For instance, not cars but the roads and structures cars use can be embedded with Wi-Fi radios allowing drivers to connect with parking garages, tollbooths or even rest areas through the ad hoc network. Long before a driver gets to the tool booth, for instance, the mesh of vehicles can carry a notification to the driver, warning of the upcoming toll, its amount, what lane he needs to be in to use his preferred payment method and even the option to pay the toll instantly with a credit card. Since the cars are all connected to the toll booth via the moving Wi-Fi network, the booth operators know which vehicles have paid and which haven’t.

In another example, connected parking garages could communicate availability and pricing to passing drivers, give them the option to reserve a parking space immediately, assign them slots and then direct them to their reserved space.
If Ford can build a rich suite of applications on top of vehicle networking, then market forces could drive the adoption of the intelligent network rather than a government mandate, Mascarenas said. The industry could split the Wi-Fi channel in two, allocating a portion of the spectrum for government-run safety and traffic management applications, while opening up the rest of the network for commercial applications.

The key, Mascarenas said, is drawing a sharp line between the vehicles as nodes on the network and the vehicles as receivers of information. In order for the system to work, every car acts as a node on the network, occasionally receiving information and services pertinent to the driver but most often acting as a mere relay passing that data down the line of cars until it reaches its destination. When paying a toll, no driver wants to share his credit card data with the 20 cars between his and the tool booth. Ford, however, believes it can put the security and encryption in place that allows such relays to work without compromising individual the privacy of its customers.

The collaborative mesh network could even be used as a mobile broadband alternative to the wide area cellular network. Offload points on the roadside would be used to backhaul traffic to the Internet, but the cars themselves—so long as they all remained a half mile from one another—could pass a Netflix movie stream or a video call down the highway to the vehicle requesting it. Mascarenas admitted that technology like that is outside of Ford’s primary focus on safety and traffic management, but he said it definitely wasn’t a farfetched concept.

“It’s on the technology roadmap and it’s something that’s definitely being talked about,” Mascarenas said. “There are endless possibilities for this technology.”

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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