If cars communicated with each other, many road accidents could be avoided. Professor Huang Liusheng, from the University of Science and Technology of China, is leading a national research project to make cars "talk", not just among themselves, but with the road and even the internet. The potential is huge. China is the world's largest car market and the central government is considering an ambitious plan to equip every car with devices to send and receive messages.
What are the major technical challenges of vehicle-to-vehicle communication?
The problems, in general, fall into two categories: latency and reliability. Let's take braking as an example. A driver stamps on the brakes on a highway. The event must be immediately broadcast to vehicles nearby, such as those within 200 metres. Other vehicles must interpret the signal and make the proper response. From the occurrence of an event to the implementation of the adjustment, it all must be done in a few milliseconds. That's quite a technical challenge to engineers and scientists. Meanwhile, the signal must remain high quality in various environments.
Have scientists solved the problems?
Latency has been reduced to a very low level, enough for practical use. The problem has almost been solved. The reliability of wireless communication between vehicles has also increased significantly in recent years. But some technical issues remain and they are not easy to overcome. For instance, if a vehicle ahead brakes, but it's in another lane, how should my vehicle respond? How can my car know whether the braking vehicle was steering into my lane to avoid an obstacle in its way? These are problems that have to be solved before mass application of the technology.
Are technological issues the biggest obstacle to the implementation of car-to-car communication?
No, technology will be perfect at launch. In fact, today the technology has matured enough to be widely used on automobiles to reduce traffic accidents. The biggest obstacle to mass application is the absence of an industrial standard. The system will only be effective if it is used not only in my car, but everybody else's car; not only in Chinese cars but cars imported from other countries. There are many political debates and business negotiations among nations on issues of standards, such as radio frequency. Vehicles using different standards may not be able to say "hi" to each other.
Other countries are also developing similar technology. What's China's position in the international race?
In terms of scientific research, we are on par with other countries such as the US. Technological advancement at home has helped increase China's bargaining power on negotiations over standards. Once an international industrial standard is created, adaptation of the technology will likely be fast in the car industry. But the negotiations over standards are very political, detailed and lengthy. Many scientists are impatient with the slow pace of progress at the diplomatic table.
Are Chinese automobile makers interested in the technology?
Enormously. We have teamed up with Chery [the biggest domestic car maker with more than 4 million vehicles sold last year] and launched a prototype system at the end of last month. Our system can issue a warning three to five seconds before various kinds of accidents, such as rear ending and [head-on] collisions. If talks on international standards on car-to-car communication remain at a standstill, it cannot be ruled out that Chinese car makers will unite and launch a national standard. China has the world's largest car market and it is unlikely its national standard will be ignored overseas.
Will the central government legislate to require that every car be equipped with a communication system to increase road safety?
The government is hugely interested in the technology. Not only have they given generous funding to relevant scientific research projects, but preparations are being made to enforce the technology as standard for all vehicles. If that becomes a reality, it may be the biggest improvement on car safety since the safety belt.
Will the technology make driving fun as well?
We are developing technology to extend the reach of car-to-car communication to road facilities and even the internet. If every car can be tied to the web through Wi-fi hotspots planted along the highway, passengers can get almost any kind of information - they could stream movies or take part in a video conference. The car is no longer a car, but a large, moving smartphone.
What motivated you to participate in the project?
I have spent years doing research on the internet. Though lots of good technology has been developed to integrate real-world objects with cyberspace, we had a cold response from consumers. For instance, it sounded cool to be able to control every household appliance with a smartphone, but how many people would actually pay for such technologically fancy features that, for most people, they can live without? Cars gave us new hope. More and more people in China drive, and almost everyone is willing to pay extra money for better safety. The technology will not only save many lives but create a whole new industry that can generate money and jobs.