In collaboration with Vodafone, Continental is developing a digital shield that will above all serve to protect pedestrians and cyclists. In our interview, Rob Gee, Telematics Engineering Manager at Continental, explains how the new technology will help to make the roads a safer place – and what this innovative system has in common with “the Force” in the Star Wars epic.
Rob Gee, Continental is developing a digital shield to protect pedestrians and cyclists. The idea of a “digital shield” sounds like something from a Star Wars movie. Where did you get your inspiration from for this technological innovation? Did your research team take time out for a movie night?
While a movie night would be cool, our inspiration came because it’s our job – and a matter of honour – to do good. The numbers speak to the situation at hand: With more than 7,000 incidents occurring every day on German roads, the accident rate remains way too high. According to the Federal Statistical Office, the consequences are about 1,060 injuries and 9 fatalities every day, and this is unacceptable. We are committed to reducing the accident rate and to reaching our Vision Zero – a future without crashes.
Like you say, there are still way too many accidents every day – not just in Germany but around the world, and especially vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists are very often the victims. How does the new shield work and how do you hope to reduce the accident rate?
The digital shield is one of the focal points of our cooperation with Vodafone. It helps to protect precisely the vulnerable road users you just mentioned, who represent about one quarter of the traffic fatalities according to German statistics. The solution is influenced by what pedestrians and cyclists would use, and today, many carry smartphones. Likewise, about half of all new cars sold in the world today include cellular Telematics systems, and this number is rapidly increasing. Without additional hardware or weight, a user’s smartphone can host a software application that can send the individual’s position, direction, and speed to a server via the mobile network base station. This data can then be relayed to nearby vehicles that have cellular telematics or V2X-communications equipment. If the trajectories indicate a potential risk, the system can issue a warning. And because the vehicles have access to additional information such as steering wheel angle and turn signal activation, the system can also reduce the risk of a dangerous situation caused by a vehicle turning across a cyclist’s path.
So you could say the technology is creating a kind of safety network. Is that the new future of mobility: everybody connected to everybody?
Yes, but by choice, not by necessity. While it is certainly beneficial if all pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles participate in this safety network, individuals actively choose to opt in using the app on their smartphone. They should be assured, though, that the V2X messaging standards allow for protection of personally identifiable information, and the servers relaying the messages can provide anonymised information only to those vehicles for which the pedestrian’s position would be relevant. Today, the same type of information is exchanged, but by sight: A driver watches the movement of pedestrians in the vicinity, and pedestrians watch for approaching vehicles. By automating this communication and leveraging the processing power of the computers, more consistent and timely calculations can be made to determine the real risk of an incident, so that connected safety systems can make the mobility of tomorrow safer, more efficient, and more comfortable.
So this specific technology requires everybody to have a smartphone in their pocket, so their phone can interact with other people’s smart devices?
A smartphone is not the only solution, because there are many wearable wireless devices today such as medical and fitness monitors, smart watches, wireless headsets, music players, and we are even seeing the introduction of smart garments with electronics embedded in the fabric. For cyclists, solutions can include the on-board trip computer and theft tracking device, and for motorcyclists, the infotainment and telematics systems. Essentially, what you need is an electronic device capable of sending the required information. This could include C-V2X, DSRC, or cellular radio transmissions. The beauty of the digital shield is that it can leverage the technology that people are already electing to buy and carry with them. It doesn’t necessarily require consumers to purchase more than they already have.
That also means that every step is being tracked and of course this is a wider concern linked to the entire topic of connectivity. So how do you deal with people’s old fear of “big brother is watching you”?
For most people, the turning point comes when the benefit outweighs the tradeoff. Today, the vast majority of people carry smartphones, use online search engines, navigate with online maps, and participate in some form of social media because of the benefits they receive. While arguably providing a far greater safety benefit than navigation or social media apps, the digital shield requires only a tiny fraction of the information compared to what people are already giving away, and does not require personal information to be sent to vehicles or other users. The information transmitted digitally is even less than a driver can obtain by merely watching a pedestrian cross at an intersection, since by sight a driver can observe personally identifiable information about the pedestrian such as their face. We believe that by leveraging the best practices developed for vehicular V2X systems, which themselves protect against sharing personally identifiable information, the digital shield strikes the right balance by increasing safety while requiring even less information to be shared than what is observable as a person walks along a street.
Talking of benefits, connectivity brings a whole host of them. What do you see as the main advantages of connected cars and infrastructure in terms of greater road safety?
Whereas in the past, vehicle connectivity primarily provided post-crash emergency calling, vehicle diagnostics, and remote vehicle services such as stolen vehicle tracking and remote door unlock functionality, today the automotive industry is starting to use connectivity for improved everyday safety and as a key technology for intelligent mobility in the future. The connected vehicle can provide access to the latest infotainment, but it can also communicate real-time traffic information, optimal navigation routes, and warnings about road hazards. In time, we will see such notifications and warnings enhanced by integration with the vehicle safety systems, allowing for automated emergency braking and steering, and enabling cooperative and connected driving in which multiple vehicles share safety sensor data and work together to mitigate dangerous situations.
Continental is collaborating with Vodafone. Is that also a sign of the times: automotive suppliers working hand in hand with telecommunication companies in the interests of greater road safety?
It is important for us to collaborate with companies like Vodafone who form an important part of the end-to-end system – collaborations lead to innovations, and innovations drive the state of the art forward. Our cooperation with Vodafone brings experts from both worlds, automotive and telecommunications, together to develop solutions based on smart communication technologies such as 5G, cellular V2X and mobile edge computing. By combining Continental’s expertise in automotive, telematics and connectivity with Vodafone´s knowledge in IoT, 5G and cellular technologies, Continental is developing and testing approaches like our digital shield to help make the roads safer for all users.
Going back to Star Wars: Do you ever actually get inspiration from science fiction movies? Because there are many examples of how Hollywood directors have somehow predicted technological innovations, like in Back to the Future, James Bond, or KITT, the talking car in the TV series Knight Rider?
Who wouldn’t want to have foreknowledge of key events, especially ones involving dangerous situations that can be avoided? This would be like having “the Force” in Star Wars, or Spiderman’s “Spidey Sense”. With wireless V2X technologies and Continental’s digital shield for vulnerable road users, we can start to bring science fiction to life.