Ford Shows Custom Wi-Fi for Car Communication

The technology Ford is showing across the country is already working, with the exception of a few loose ends here and there. At this time, the company is expecting to have it available for sale in production cars by 2013. Experiencing it for the first time is compelling and is surely one of those "I want this now" moments.

Ford believes that a car by itself can only do so much to make your life more convenient, safer and more efficient. To work in future traffic patterns with many more cars in many more mega-cities, cars will have to communicate with each other. That communication is based on relatively simple ideas that have to be applied to an increasingly complex world. Ford has a few test vehicles on the road that integrate GPS and "short-range Wi-Fi" capability, which is not so short range after all.

The company decreased the data bandwidth to 6 Mb/s and was able to widen the range with a 100 mW transmitter to more than half a mile (about 1 km). Data packets are sent out in the 5.9 GHz band at a frequency of 10 times per second and include information location and movement data. Each packet is encrypted and about 300 to 400 bytes in size. Packets are sent and received to all cars equipped with this technology within their range.

Ford says that it uses a 400 MHz Freescale processor to process the data packets; however, not all data packets may actually be processed. If you are stuck in a traffic jam, your car may be hit with thousands of packets every second; and considering the fact that the processor needs 4 ms just to decrypt a single data packet, the Wi-Fi system could be brought down to its knees in an instant. So, Ford decided to use a technology to filter general packets from those that could be considered a threat to your car and process only those.

The company told me that Wi-Fi signal and data packet format itself is being standardized and can be used by any car manufacturer. The software platform in the car, however, is proprietary to increase its security even if the company claims that your car will store "less information than the average smartphone smartphone does."

There are more concepts that are further out, such as traffic control systems that are enabled by roadside data reception units that can relay traffic data to a traffic management center, which can reroute cars to avoid a traffic jam and provide such a signal via a cellular signal.

So, how does the Wi-Fi tech in the real world? It is pretty effective and has amazing possibilities, especially to prevent accidents. While it is a non-intrusive assist to driving, it delivers audio-visual warnings to possible threats. It is particularly noticeable when your car is on a collision course with another car you cannot see - for example, in an intersection with limited view. Another example would be a car in front of view that is avoiding a crash into another standing car by swerving to the side in a last-second maneuver. You, however, could crash into the stopped car, but would be warned early on to avoid a collision, provided the stopped car can communicate with your car. Gladly, Ford's demonstration, which actually included cars moving at speeds up to 30 mph, worked perfectly and left the impression that it is already at a stage where it could increase traffic safety by a considerable margin. Ford's engineers said that the technology is far along, but there are still security features that are still being worked on. In the end, you really don't want such a system to be able to be easily hacked.

The demonstration also showed a clear difference to radar. Radar has a tough time distinguishing between a stationary object and a car - and usually cannot detect a car that is unexpectedly moving into your lane in time. This technology is much faster in relaying information than radar does today. While it is unlikely that Wi-Fi will replace radar and Wi-Fi technologies in a car, it is likely to become the primary assistance system to warn drivers of possible collisions.

The bottom line? How great would it be if we could have a (secure) Wi-Fi system among cars today - or in 2013? The vision behind such a system is clear and there are lots of benefits involved. But, in reality, such a system is only useful if many cars will use such a system and will only realize its vision if all cars on the road will use it. Given the lifecycle of a car, we know that we will never have a scenario in which you can rely 100 percent on such a system. Will you be able to confidently overtake another car just before a corner? Of course not. But the system is not designed to allow you to do things you are not supposed to do today anyway. It delivers additional safety and we should see a significant market penetration one to two car ownership generations out in the future. 2025 sounds like a reasonable date to me - if the technology catches on.