Imagine: A truck driver gets a signal on his dash, warning him that a car ahead that he cannot see has slammed on the brakes.

Or that he's going too fast for the curve ahead.

Or that there's a car speeding toward the upcoming intersection that will not be able to stop before the light changes.

The heads-up gives the driver an invaluable sliver of time to back off the throttle and prepare for what's coming.

Experts say these warnings can provide a quantum leap in highway safety.

They would be provided through wireless connections between vehicles, as well as between vehicles and the highway and related infrastructure. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, as they're called, can reduce non-impaired heavy truck crashes by more than 70%.<!break>

The safety benefit is huge, on par with safety belts, air bags and stability control, says Scott Belcher, president and CEO of ITS America.

There are over 900,000 rear-end crashes a year. That's $ 15 billion in economic loss. If you can prevent those crashes, that technology is really valuable.

A decade of research

Federal, state and private partners have been researching and testing the science for the past decade. They aim to make decisions by the end of next year for cars and by 2014 for trucks.

It is possible the research could lead to recommendations for equipment regulations by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, although it is too soon to know for sure.

The technology is based on dedicated short-range communications that broadcast in the 5.9-gigahertz band. The Federal Communications Commission set this frequency aside for safety applications following a petition from ITS America, Belcher says.

There's a lot of potential, says Sean Saunders, director of safety for Con-way Freight, which has eight trucks in a pilot test in Michigan.

Saunders says the trucks are being fitted with devices that will broadcast and receive messages on emergency braking, front collision risks and curve speeds. Another fleet, Sysco, has eight more trucks in the pilot.

The trucks will be part of a fleet of some 3,000 vehicles that will test wireless communications on the road over the next year. The test will be on highways around Ann Arbor, Mich. It is organized by the DOT and run by the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute.

Other testing in the works

The UMTRI pilot is the cutting edge of wireless technology, but it is just one of several ongoing tests that could make a big difference to the trucking business.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is working on a Smart Roadside Initiative, or SRI, that will use the 5.9-GHz spectrum for wireless roadside inspections, truck and driver identification, electronic screening, credential checks and parking availability.

The basic research is done, and the agency is moving on to develop a prototype design that will be tested in the field starting next year, an agency spokesman says. Implementation still is a ways off.

The SRI effort will include a field operational test of Wireless Roadside Inspection starting in 2014. The test will take place in five states with 10 commercial fleets and up to 1,000 trucks.

One public-private partnership, HELP Inc., already is testing a 5.9-GHz communications system that will expand its portfolio of wireless roadside services.

HELP, best known for its PrePass weigh station clearance system, has begun a pilot project along I-70 through Indiana, Ohio and Illinois that adds driver and credentialing information to its usual weigh-in-motion and pre-clearance data.

Obstacles and risks

The architects of the new communications systems have committed to the standard because it can carry a lot of data very quickly and securely.

The effective range of the signal for vehicle-to-vehicle communications is about 300 meters, says Steve Sprouff-ske, manager of ITS Solutions for Kapsch. Kapsch, based in Austria, is a provider of intelligent transportation systems in Europe and the U.S.

But there are questions that will have to be answered before the vision of connected highways can be achieved.

A big one is the status of the 5.9-GHz spectrum itself. The qualities that make it attractive for highway safety also make it attractive to other interests, and the FCC has been under pressure to see if it can be used for other purposes as well.

Last year, ITS America had to step in to fix a legislative proposal that could have led to sharing the spectrum even if it was determined that sharing the spectrum was not safe. ITS America won language that says the official study of the issue must look at whether or not the spectrum can be safely shared.

The study, to be done by DOT and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, is due to be completed by the end of next year, about the same time NHTSA starts to look at possible regulations.

If there's any possibility that sharing will put the connected vehicle program at risk, I think you'll see a very active engagement by the U.S. government, Belcher says. One crash because of interference by another user is huge and can put the entire program at risk.

Trucking interests have expressed concern that DOT may be pressing too quickly for 5.9-GHz standards out of fear that the spectrum could be co-opted if it's not used, but Belcher is confident the spectrum will continue to be available for highway safety.

The only question is whether or not it will be shared, and it will only be shared if it is safe to do so, he says.

Kapsch's Sprouffske counsels patience.

5.9 is being developed for safety-critical applications, he says. It takes longer to develop the killer apps in that field. We need a little patience because we don't want to have half-baked collision avoidance systems.

In any event, Belcher adds, NHTSA is not bound to commence rulemaking in 2013 and 2014. The agency may decide it needs to do more research. NHTSA can take as much time as it wants.

What's the business model?

Another big hurdle and this one looms large for trucking is development of a business model for this technology.

Dan Murray, vice president of research for the American Transportation Research Institute, the research arm of American Trucking Associations, says he's a big fan of wireless technology but still has concerns.

ATRI is deeply involved in research in the field, reflecting the interests of carriers that are early adopters of cutting-edge safety technology, but the industry has to keep a close eye on costs as well as benefits, he says.

He is worried, for instance, that if NHTSA gets into a 5.9-GHz regulatory mandate, carriers might have to add a new device or replace existing wireless devices that have already proven effective.

ITS Americas Belcher acknowledges that the cost-benefit concern is real. It is not yet clear what the costs of the vehicle-to-vehicle or vehicle-to-infrastructure systems would be, he says.

The cost of the 5.9-GHz transponders in the vehicles is straightforward, but a complete system will require an additional communications system whose expense is not well understood yet.

It may be that vehicles in the system will need satellite links to a back office to make sure the data moving between vehicles is secure. Researchers are still trying to figure that one out, Belcher says.

The cost and who pays that's one of the big issues that we're wrestling with, he says.

Other concerns are protecting the privacy of users and ensuring that the system is secure. Researchers have efforts under way to address those issues.

But the vision of a system by which vehicles can warn each other of impending risks is compelling.

Trucking interests have long stressed that many, if not most, crashes between cars and trucks are initiated when the driver of the car makes a mistake.

A technology that gives both drivers a heads-up might go a long way toward making roadways safer for everyone.

From the December issue of HDT magazine.