In a world where people already feel over-connected by cell phones, the Internet, iPods and PDAs, it's easy to take the power to communicate for granted. But these connections are a lot more fragile than one might imagine.
In the frenzied aftermath of Sept. 11 and hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, communication lifelines were suddenly cut off completely for emergency personnel when infrastructure was destroyed.
That's one of the primary reasons why public agencies such as the California Department of Transportation are paying close attention to a project led by Computer Science Professor Mario Gerla at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Gerla and his team are turning specially equipped cars into a mobile network that enables one car to transmit signals to an entire fleet of cars in the same wireless network. Cars traveling within 100 to 300 meters of each other can connect, and, car by car, can create a network over a wide range. As cars fall out of range and drop out of the network, other node-equipped cars can join in to receive or send signals.
"Currently, to get onto the Internet or use a cell phone in a moving car requires that a tower or other stationary access point be within range," Gerla said. The mobile network bypasses this by connecting vehicles to one another until eventually everyone is connected, and a mobile Internet is created using standard radio protocols combined to wireless LAN (Local Area Network) technology.
The basics of this were demonstrated recently when Gerla and his assistants set off for a drive around the UCLA campus in three cars, one of which had a video camera pointing out of its front windshield. In one of the other networked cars, Gerla watched that same view on his laptop. (In the future, drivers could see this on GPS screens.)
It didn't matter whether the camera car was in front of the caravan or fell behind in traffic; the view wasn't interrupted. Each car had to be equipped with about $1,000 worth of devices to be networked.
There are several exciting ways this new technology could be used, Gerla explained. In a wartime situation, for example, drivers in networked vehicles would have access to information about dangers within or near their mobile network, such as the presence of smoke or radiation from a dirty bomb. Just one vehicle would need to be equipped with a detection device in order for the other vehicles to be aware of the threat. Drivers could also find out about escape routes over the network in the event of an attack.
On crowded Southern California freeways, accidents could be prevented if drivers have access to pertinent, real-time information about collisions or changes in traffic patterns ahead.
In natural disasters when other communication networks go down, a mobile vehicle network could provide a vital means of communication for rescue workers. Police cars, ambulances and hazardous materials response units are likely to be the first users of mobile networks, Gerla predicted.
It's not such a giant leap for technology, he added. "We already have all of these advanced computer devices as integrated systems inside our cars. It would take very little to augment those systems. It's time to extend that concept."