Imagine yourself a few years from now on the way home from work. As you look down to wiggle a drink into the cup holder and crank up the new Beyonce song playing on the radio, an 18-wheeler changes lanes directly in front of you.

This scenario (excluding the Beyonce song) is one that researchers from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) takes into account as it continues to conduct research on vehicular connectivity and communication — a technology that could potentially save lives by allowing vehicles to sense impending danger and deploy countermeasures, such as the automatic application of brakes. 

VTTI was recently awarded a $1 million add-on to a pre-existing $3 million contract from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The additional funds follow an announcement by the Department of Transportation last month, which will require communicative capabilities in all cars and light trucks on U.S. highways — a regulation that officials have stated they hope to go in effect before January 2017.

The contract concerns work on a technology that VTTI has been associated with for a decade that many of its researchers are more than familiar with.

“Researchers at VTTI have acquired knowledge and expertise from decades of general transportation-safety research, and as such have a firm understanding of the importance of a properly informed driver, communicating information through appropriately-designed DVIs (driver vehicle interfaces),” said Luke Neurauter, VTTI researcher and leader of the institute’s Connected & Advanced Vehicle Systems Group.

VTTI has steadily been conducting and completing phases of the overall project objective from the $3 million contract, which is the creation of an “integration architecture” for the vehicle to communicate information to the driver without distraction — the factor often cited as the number one cause for most automotive accidents.

Neurauter noted that the $1 million follow-up is intended to help him and his group continue research into the architecture, which they believe will be the most effective medium.  

“Drivers in a connected-vehicle environment will receive messages that are safety-critical, in addition to those that are simply informative, either from driving-related applications…or even consumer-targeted information along the lines of social networking or marketing,” Neurauter said. “It is critical that the driver not be overloaded or distracted by these available messages, thus undermining the potential safety benefits.”

VTTI’s Virginia Connected Test Bed, located in Merrifield, Va., will play an important role by allowing not only vehicle-to-vehicle communication testing, but also vehicle-to-infrastructure communication.

“This test bed currently has 43 (and counting) installed roadside equipment units, which will allow us to validate the current architecture in a representative environment consisting of varying roadway types and levels of congestion,” Neurauter said.

According to a fact sheet published by the NHTSA in 2012, in addition to the technology’s potential to “address 80 percent of the crash scenarios involving non-impaired drivers,” it could also help reduce traffic delays by re-routing drivers to different routes and impact the environment by giving the driver the choice to take a “greener” alternative and conserve fuel.

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