Boffin aims to boostrap web for cars

20 September 2005

Jon CrowcroftCambridge academic Jon Crowcroft doesn’t want to wait for a government-imposed network to wirelessly link up cars into co-operating convoys, of the sort envisaged in Japan. Instead he plans to kick-start a mobile revolution from the ground up, mostly by waving his arms enthusiastically while spilling out sentences that begin, “Imagine if...”

Crowcroft argues that all the tools necessary to extend the internet to cars are already available. “The Mac Mini fits right in the radio slot,” he enthuses, speaking at the Connected Car conference in Cambridge, UK, before pointing out that the recently-launched Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP) is smaller still and wireless-ready.

Not that Crowcroft envisages drivers playing networked shoot-em-ups while barrelling along in the fast lane. Instead he foresees co-operative networks of cars pooling information about road conditions, exchanging data on an opportunistic basis.

If every car carried a wireless transceiver and a forward-looking webcam, he suggests, and relayed real-time images via a hop-by-hop network to a fixed web server, people would be able to preview the very recent state of almost any road prior to embarking on a journey. Crowcroft suggests drivers might want to “fly” through a preview stitched together from recent snapshots before choosing a route.

For those already on the road, a few short wireless hops ahead may be car that can see a hazard you will shortly encounter. Another might warn of a motorway tailback. Those stuck in such jams might access views ahead to find out the cause of the delay, helping them to decide whether to leave at the next opportunity or to stick it out. Or emergency services might access recent images while en route to a pile-up.

At its simplest, such a system would allow drivers to see around upcoming corners.

Beyond Apple or Sony hardware, building blocks are already in place, Crowcroft states. Intel research has demonstrated that ordinary 802.11 wireless LAN technology can work between moving vehicles, despite not being designed for the purpose. And because metal cars block radio signals, interference between wireless units sitting in traffic jams falls off rapidly, Crowcoft says. That means 802.11’s relatively few communication slots can be reused along a line of traffic, making it reasonably well-suited to the task.

Besides, Crowcroft doesn’t believe in waiting for some standards body somewhere to come up with the perfect enabling technology. “Most standards bodies are dead in the water, as far as innovation is concerned,” he asserts. “The IETF has been dead for 10 years – if you go there, you can smell it.”

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