Have you ever really thought about V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) communications and how IoT (Internet of Things)-enabled technologies will lessen the need for transportation infrastructure like traffic lights?

It’s a fair assumption that unless you are in the transportation industry you are not pondering how the IoT will impact the transportation infrastructure. But the fact is, the IoT, machine learning, artificial intelligence, blockchain, and so many other advanced technologies will have a dramatic impact on the future of transportation systems.

Another fair hypothesis I don’t need to articulate is how much of a pain traffic can be. While I do not know where all my readers are located, I have been very forthright in noting that I live in the greater Chicago area, and traffic is a huge part of our lives here in Chicago, unless of course you live in the city and rely solely on public transportation, and still transportation is everything.

With that being said, those of you who are reading this blog and are based in L.A., Bangkok, Mexico City, and even more congested cities, I can just imagine how you are rolling your eyes right now. But keep an open mind, is this really a contest that anybody wants to win in the end?

Sitting in traffic is horrible. It’s a waste of your time and real natural resources such as gasoline. It’s bad for productivity and for the environment—and that’s not to mention how bad it is for people’s moods.

To be very transparent here, as most of my readers know, as do my radio listeners, I don’t even drive, and I’m starting to think I too get road rage in the passenger’s seat. I do believe I heard my husband accuse me of that just the other day mostly because of the experience that I witnessed and the stupid acts people perform while driving.

Just the other day I saw several people in Chicago doing very stupid things like texting and driving and talking on their cellphones. This appears to be a regular thing. They are talking and texting constantly. It’s against the law—by the way—let alone not safe. But that’s a conversation for another day.

We’ve established that traffic is the worst. People are just doing whatever they want when they want to regardless of the consequences. Now, let’s talk about what can be done about it.

One beacon of hope for those of us who hate sitting in traffic is connectivity.

Yes! And connectivity will bring about the world of autonomous driving.

Looking out a bit farther, it’s clear to see that autonomous vehicles will be a part of all of our lives. V2V communications is slated to significantly reduce not only traffic, but also road accidents and fatalities because they keep cars in contact with each other.

It might help to take a closer at the definition of V2V from the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.): V2V communications use on-board dedicated short-range radio communication devices to transmit messages about a vehicle’s speed, heading, brake status, and other information to other vehicles and receive the same information.”

Basically, V2V communication enables the sharing of data, like GPS (global positioning system) location, speed, and the direction of moving vehicles.

The ability to “see” around corners or “through” other vehicles helps V2V-equipped vehicles perceive threats sooner than human eyes and even sooner than sensors, cameras, and radar.

These in-vehicle systems can warn drivers about threats and, hopefully, prevent an accident. Someday, V2V-equipped vehicles will simply react to this data instead of triggering a warning and relying on a human driver to do the reacting.

Institutions like the NHTSA have been researching this technology for more than a decade, but it’s still one of those “someday” scenarios. This is mostly because it takes a really long time for technology to be deemed safe enough for use in situations where the stakes are this high.

According to MarketsandMarkets, growth of the V2X or “vehicle-to-everything” market is due to the rising demand for realtime traffic alerts, an increase in government funds for better traffic management, and the development of connected vehicles.

By the way, “V2X” is just a quick way to reference V2V and V2I (vehicle-to-infrastructure) communication technologies. According to MarketsandMarkets, the V2X market was valued at $22.6 billion in 2016, and it is projected to reach nearly $100 billion by 2025.

With traffic congestion affecting the lives of billions of people across the world on a daily basis and millions of vehicle crashes annually, this is a problem worth solving. V2X technology is going to play a huge role in helping drivers—and, eventually, vehicles—react to crash-imminent situations before it’s too late.

But what is it going to take to make this happen? Do we need to connect not only our vehicles, but also our entire infrastructure to achieve accident-free roadways? Yes, unless we design a new type of traffic system that relies less on physical infrastructure.

And this is exactly what a new research project led by engineer Rusheng Zhang, together with a team from Carnegie Mellon University, is doing. This intriguing project is called “Virtual Traffic Lights” or “VTL,” and it’s essentially an infrastructure-free traffic control scheme that leverages V2V communications.

The Carnegie Mellon team designed a prototype VTL system leveraging DSRC (dedicated short-range communications) technology, and it’s conducting pilot tests in Pittsburgh.

The experiments performed so far—which, to my knowledge, are taking place in parking lots and not on actual roads—have demonstrated the feasibility of a virtual traffic lights system.

Preliminary results suggest VTL is capable of successfully coordinating traffic at intersections and reducing commute times. The researchers estimate that using VTL could reduce travel times by up to 20% at intersections with stop signs, and it could lead to a 20% reduction in Co2 emissions under high-density traffic.

So you may be wondering how this works. VTL logic follows five steps: First, as vehicles approach an intersection, they start to detect other vehicles approaching the same intersection.

Next, the VTL algorithm elects a “leader” vehicle. The leader broadcasts traffic light information, giving a “red light” to its own lanes and a “green light” to the lanes running perpendicular to it. The leader decides how long each direction should receive the right of way, and the timing can be dynamic based on the current traffic flow or it could be a fixed value.

When the time is up, the leader vehicle passes the baton to another vehicle. This is unquestionably an exciting time in transportation. The infrastructure-free scheme could have several benefits; it could also mean the next generation of innovators will need to think and act differently.

Theoretically, we should experience less traffic congestion and less carbon emissions, as well as fewer costs associated with building and maintaining infrastructure like traffic lights and traffic control systems. What do you think? Could we one day replace physical traffic light systems with virtual alternatives?

One question that’s always on my mind is security. Will these systems be secure enough that we can trust that the bad actors can control the infrastructure lights during a natural disaster or even worse controlling the VTL while diverting police or fire in an effort to attempt to cause harm to a world leader?

What if this system is hacked, and people start figuring out how to manipulate the algorithm for nefarious purposes? As usual when we’re talking about IoT solutions, we need to make sure we’re thinking like bad guys think as we design, test, and deploy innovative solutions. If we don’t, we’re just asking for more trouble than we ever thought possible, let alone imagined.

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