An important element to the notion of self-driving cars is that they are able to communicate between each other and surrounding infrastructure. While automotive manufacturers have begun to explore this technology and even banded together to hasten its emergence, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute has been quietly working toward a similar goal. With the an award of US$1 million in funding courtesy of the US Department of Transportation, its researchers hope to develop a framework to facilitate a safe future for autonomous vehicles.

The federal funding will supplement a $3 million project already underway at the institute, which aims to establish a reference guide for app developers and manufacturers of driving systems on how motorists can safely and effectively receive communications from the vehicles and infrastructure.

Thus far, the institute has conducted testing for communicating information such as weather and traffic reports to drivers without compromising safety. This has involved interfaces such as windshield augmented reality pop-ups and audible devices both in simulation and on actual highways where the driver interacts through voice and hand gestures.

"Vehicle-to-vehicle technology represents the next generation of auto safety improvements, building on the life-saving achievements we’ve already seen with safety belts and air bags," said US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "By helping drivers avoid crashes, this technology will play a key role in improving the way people get where they need to go while ensuring that the US remains the leader in the global automotive industry.”

In coordination with the State Department of Transportation, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute already has a $14 million test bed in place. It contains 43 wireless infrastructure devices which, situated along two interstate highways, send basic safety messages to a fleet of test cars, trucks and motorcycles also fitted with wireless systems.

Challenges that the institute is aiming to overcome include the creation of uniform warnings across different devices and vehicles, determining what is pertinent information for different road users (a truck driver and a motorcycle rider for example) and also securing the systems against hackers.

"We see this as a hugely progressive move," said Zac Doerzaph, director of the institute’s Center for Advanced Automotive Research and lead investigator on the project. "Vehicle communication technology has the great ability to improve safety, if it is implemented in a wise and safe way. We’re trying to get ahead of the game to ensure design before connectivity proliferates the entire driving experience."