Every time I write about the increasingly intelligent vehicles that automakers are putting on the road, Metcalfe's Law is also in the back of my mind. Originally formulated by George Gilder a quarter-century ago, it was later attributed to (and named for) Bob Metcalfe in regard to his co-founding of Ethernet. Wikipedia's summary of the Law is as follows
The effect [editor note: i.e. the power] of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system (n2 ).
And, particularly germane to this blog post, the Wikipedia entry goes on to say:
I'll claim here that vehicles also qualify as “compatible communicating devices” and, as such, are candidates for enhancement courtesy of a wireless network interconnecting them. Imagine, for example, the benefits that would accrue from vehicles telling other vehicles around them that they've been delayed by a just-occurred accident (either their own or one in proximity to them), and that those other vehicles should accordingly re-route themselves around the bottleneck. Or imagine, for fully autonomous vehicles, the ability to completely eliminate traffic lights in favor of inter-vehicle communication that enables safe and smooth transit through intersections for all vehicles approaching from all directions. I'm sure you can come up with plenty of other candidate scenarios.
Admittedly, such functions could alternatively be implemented, at least to some degree, via cameras mounted at intersections (which will likely exist nonetheless), for example. But I'd argue that the source data is both more accurate and more rapidly perceived and disseminated when it's sourced from affected vehicles themselves. And of course, the data won't be sent solely to other vehicles, as the Wikipedia entry for “Vehicle-to-everything” notes:
Vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communication is the passing of information from a vehicle to any entity that may affect the vehicle, and vice versa. It is a vehicular communication system that incorporates other more specific types of communication as V2I (Vehicle-to-Infrastructure), V2V (Vehicle-to-vehicle), V2P (Vehicle-to-Pedestrian), V2D (Vehicle-to-device) and V2G (Vehicle-to-grid). The main motivations for V2X are safety and energy savings. The main obstacles to its adoption are legal issues and the fact that, unless almost all vehicles adopt it, its effectiveness is limited.
Personally, I'd add “privacy” to the main-obstacle list, since V2X-transmitted data can conceivably include information such as where you are, where you've been (and when), and how fast and otherwise aggressively you're driving. Then again, however, I've admittedly been bewildered at the popularity of today's GPS- and OBD-II-based telematics devices, such as Progressive's Snapshot and alternatives from other insurance providers. Perhaps, sadly I might add, I've underestimated consumers' willingness to dispense with privacy for discounts on their policies and/or other perceived benefits.
Privacy aside, if you buy into my premise that a wireless network interconnecting vehicles with each other as well as with the broader Internet has value, the obvious next questions involve how such a network should be implemented; what protocol should be employed, and what spectrum swath should it occupy? Until recently, the answers to those questions seemed settled; back in the late 1990s, the U.S. FCC (Federal Communications Committee) allocated 75 MHz of spectrum in the 5.9 GHz ISM (industrial, scientific and medical) band for ITS (intelligent transportation systems) uses.
The approach, specifically referred to as DSRC (dedicated short range communications) in the U.S. (Europe, for example, is working on a conceptually similar approach which allocates 30 MHz of spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band), overlaps spectrum already in use for military, satellite, and amateur radio services, along with well-known 5.8 GHz Wi-Fi. Messy? Yes. The approach is conceptually akin to ad hoc Wi-Fi, with no centralized router-like infrastructure required and connections between vehicles and other nodes (vehicles, roadside transmitters and receivers, etc) set up (and subsequently torn down) “on the fly” based on proximity and functional need.