Science + Technology

Taking It to the Streets: UCLA Scientists Seek to Turn Cars Into a Mobile Communications Network


It's no secret Americans love their cars, and modern computersystems have enhanced vehicle performance and safety. For computer scienceprofessor Mario Gerla and researcher Giovanni Pau atthe UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering andApplied Science, the next step is to take that digital processing power andpush it outward even further — by using cars as computer nodes in a mobilenetwork on wheels.

Computers already have made their way out from under the hood andinto the passenger space with systems such as GPS navigation and services that can unlock a car by satellite. And wirelessLAN capability will soon be installed by car manufacturers to make drivingsafer.

"We have all of these computer devices as integrated systemsinside our cars," Gerla said. "It's time to extendthat concept. Computers arealready being installed in many vehicles, and wireless capability will soonfollow, so a mobile network deployment would only require the relativelylow-cost addition of sensors to the vehicle's roof and bumpers and configuringthe computer with new 'mobile' applications."

Theteam at UCLA Engineering's Network Research Lab, led by Gerla,is looking at reinventing cars and networks based on the principles of awireless, mobile ad-hoc networking platform, or MANET. The MANET platform allows moving vehicles within a range of 100 to 300 meters of eachother to connect and, car by car, create a network with a wide range. As carsfall out of range and drop out of the network, other node-equipped cars can joinin to receive or send signals.

"Weuse standard radio protocols such as Digital Short Range Communication, or DSRC,combined with wireless LAN technology to create networks between vehiclesequipped with onboard sensing devices," Pausaid. "These devices can gather safety-related information, as well as othercomplex multimedia data, such asvideo. The most essential aspect of this network is that it is not subject tomemory, processing, storage and energy limitations like traditional sensornetworks. It relies on the resources of the vehicle itself, along with thosevehicles around it."

Currently,gaining access to the Internet or to a cellular phone system requires that atower or other stationary access point be within range. The mobile networkbypasses this set up by connecting vehicles to one another until, eventually,everyone is connected to everyone else and a mobile Internet is created. Accessto the fixed Internet can then be obtained indirectly, through any of themobile Internet vehicles.

While similar to a wireless local area network (WLAN), a mobilenetwork has to perform tasks far more complicated than connecting one wirelesscomputer to another — it must be able to distinguish between multiple movingvehicles (nodes), determine the signal strength emanating from each one, gaugeits speed, who might have priority, such as a police car or fire engine, andwhat kind of data is being exchanged, like voice, data or video — all at thesame time.

The benefits ofthis type of network are broad, Gerla said. Day-to-daydriving could be safer and more convenient — on crowded freeways in Southern California, accidents could be prevented ifdrivers have access to pertinent, real-time information about collisions orchanges in traffic patterns ahead.

Drivers would have access to informationabout dangers within or near their mobile network, such as the presence ofsmoke from a forest fire or radiation from a dirty bomb. Just one vehicle wouldneed to be equipped with the detection device in order for other vehicles inthe network to be aware of the threat. The network also could list escaperoutes to drivers in the event of a terrorist attack.

Importantly, thetechnology could also provide life-saving communications between emergencypersonnel. During Hurricane Katrina and the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, communicationinfrastructures were destroyed and first responders were unable to communicate.A mobile vehicle network could provide an essential lifeline for emergencypersonnel and others to stay connected when all other networks fail.

The benefits ofa mobile network are already being explored by the California Department ofTransportation in conjunction with Gerla's team. Gerla and Pau are working with CalTransto develop both the vehicle sensors that detect highway problems — such aslarge potholes — and the mobile network that would transmit this informationinstantly. With immediate access to roadway information, CalTransofficials would be better equipped to make decisions about where and in whatpriority to make repairs, saving crews time and energy and saving taxpayersmoney.

Gerla, Pauand the team of researchers already have constructed a vehicular testbed to explore these issues and to study car-to-carnetworking experiments under various traffic conditions and mobilitysituations. With a successful field test already completed, Gerla'steam has further plans to develop a UCLA Campus Vehicle Testbed,or C-VeT, through a wireless testbedenvironment called WHYNET — developed and shared by a multi-university researchconsortium involving computer science and electrical engineering faculty fromfive University of California campuses, USC and the University of Delaware,with funding provided by the National Science Foundation. C-VeTwill be accessible remotely by any research institution via a Web interface.

Building a collaborative, ubiquitous network out of new cars,however, is not an easy task, Gerla said. Consumerswill need to play a major role in the development of car-to-car networks, andthere is one major hurdle facing widespread adoption: privacy concernssurrounding turning a car into part of a larger network. Not every driver willwant to share the status or contents of their system, no matter how benign thedata may be.

For this reason,it is expected that the first mobile networks will be implemented in emergencyresponse vehicles such as police cars, ambulances and hazardous materialsresponse units.

Implementationalso will require the cooperation of car manufacturers. Efforts have alreadybegun in this arena, with Connected Vehicle Trade Association in the U.S. and organizations such as the Car2CarCommunication Consortium in Europe, as well as ongoing efforts in Japan.

"Consumer demand will ultimately drive rapid adoption past thepoint of concern over privacy," Gerla said. "If I hadto make a guess, I would expect networked cars to appear on the market in aboutfive years. Ultimately, the advantages far outweigh the concerns."

For moreinformation on UCLA Engineering's Network Research Lab, visit

About the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and AppliedScience

Establishedin 1945, the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineeringand Applied Science offers 28 academic and professional degree programs,including an interdepartmental graduate degree program in biomedicalengineering. Ranked among the top 10 engineering schools at public universitiesnationwide, the school is home to seven multimillion-dollar interdisciplinaryresearch centers in space exploration, wireless sensor systems, nanotechnology,nanomanufacturing and nanoelectronics,all funded by federal and private agencies. For more information, visit



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