You’re Not Hearing Voices, That’s Your Car: DOT’s Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communication Technology

By Cory Bilton

Potomac - Frozen 8

It’s somewhat rare to have breaking news in the world of personal injury law.  But this week, we have something close to it.  On Monday, the Department of Transportation announced that it intends to move forward with laws that enable cars to talk to each other on the road.  The program, currently dubbed Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communication Technology (“V2V”), promises to make driving safer, eliminate traffic, save the environment, and boost the economy.  This probably overstates the program’s benefits, but I do get the distinct feeling that this program is going to fundamentally change the way Americans drive.

Your Car is a Know-It-All Back-Seat Driver

The first wave of V2V safety applications are intended to allow a vehicle to send and receive information about itself to other nearby vehicles.  So your car will constantly broadcast its own speed, position, and direction as you drive along.  Your car will also listen for other cars broadcasting speed, position, and direction information.  Your car will take this information and try to determine whether there is an imminent threat of collision with nearby cars.  If your car determines that there is a collision threat, it will warn you.  There is no short-term plan to have the car take action itself, only to present some kind of visual or audio warning to the driver.

To demonstrate the viability and usefulness of V2V communications, the DOT has been running an experiment since August 2012.  It got 3,000 vehicle owners in Ann Arbor, Michigan to volunteer to have a V2V system installed and drive around as they normally would.  The DOT has been tracking these vehicles to see how well they communicate with other V2V equipped vehicles.  The press release indicates that the experiment results will be published in a research report in the coming weeks.

The Future of V2V Technology

Communication between nearby cars sounds like just the initial goal for this program.  In the future, the technology may allow cars to communicate with pedestrians, bicyclists, buildings, traffic lights, and other cars across town.  For example, if all cars are equipped with V2V technology, then it would be possible for your car to know in advance whether your route to work is currently experiencing heavy traffic, and might suggest you take an alternate route.  As with other emerging vehicle technology, like the Google car, once you start networking the vehicle with other things, there are system-wide benefits that are not immediately obvious.  It is these potential system-wide benefits that cause the DOT to paint such a rosy view of the future.

The Devil is in the Details

Although details are currently scarce, there are a few reasons I think the system may not necessarily bring about the promised results.  The first is that warning a driver may not stop that many collisions.  A warning just adds another variable to the mix.  When a driver negligently causes a collision, the driver usually had warnings prior to the collision (for example, a driver can almost always avoid rear-ending the car in front of him by heeding the visual warning presented by looking out his front windshield).  And since many collisions occur at high speeds, the V2V system must be able to warn early enough for the human driver to receive the warning and respond to it.  The driver must also respond correctly to the warning.  A sudden warning could surprise an already inattentive driver and possibly exacerbate the situation.  The V2V system can only succeed if it actually enhances the driving abilities of the average driver in the US.

Secondly, there are significant privacy concerns with the V2V system.  The DOT is currently downplaying the privacy angle by saying that “V2V technology does not involve exchanging or recording personal information or tracking vehicle movements.”  But this is an oversimplification.  A vehicle equipped with V2V technology is, by design, tracking and exchanging information with other vehicles.  This seems like a treasure trove of data for thieves, businesses, advertisers, and the NSA.   As the technology spreads to pedestrians and bicyclists, possibly through V2V communication by mobile devices (V2B?  V2P?), will we all be tracked individually?  For lawyers, can we use this V2V data in legal proceedings to prove a person’s actions or whereabouts?  These are thorny questions.

Lastly, V2V adoption is still on the distant horizon for most people in the US.  Once the details are worked out, the technology will most likely start appearing in new vehicles.  Maybe old cars can also adopt the technology, but few people are likely to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to retrofit an old jalopy to talk with other cars.  A large number of people in the US cannot afford a new car, and may have never owned a new car.  Then there are people like me who don’t own a car at all.  Since the benefits of the V2V technology only occur between vehicles that can talk with each other, we are still many years away from having nationwide adoption.

However, V2V technology is exciting.  It conjures up images of that future we saw on The Jetsons or Back to the Future, Part II.  The reality will probably be more mundane.  For personal injury lawyers, V2V is going to create many new legal issues, complications, and changes to how people behave.  My mind is already brimming with legal hypotheticals.  I’m sure I will post again on this topic as the details, and the law, take shape.

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