When he was six years old, Azzedine Boukerche recalls the day when a wandering horse put the reins on a family trip to the beach. As his relatives travelled to the seaside, his aunt's car up ahead struck the animal crossing the road.
The horse walked away but the car and its passengers were pretty banged up. And the young boy with a love of science had already begun to think of how technology could be used to avoid such accidents in the future.
"The car should have known about the horse, or the road should have been smart enough to tell the driver about it," says Dr. Boukerche, today a professor of computer science at the University of Ottawa and the Canada Research Chair in Large-Scale Distributed Interactive Simulations and Mobile Computing and Networking.
Dr. Boukerche is the director of Developing Next Generation Intelligent Vehicular Networks and Applications (DIVA), a network that includes researchers at eight universities, as well as government organizations, and computer and telecom companies working on a large-scale research program that promises to transform the way Canadians drive.
DIVA is developing technologies to allow cars to communicate with the road, with other drivers and cars as well as with the world around them, making it possible, say, for drivers to avoid obstacles, get some assistance from the car when they're sleepy or order up interactive games and videos en route to their destinations.
"We want to make cars smart and safe and entertaining at the same time," Dr. Boukerche says of the network, which has financing from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and industry partners.
The interdisciplinary research, which applies not just to cars but all types of transportation, is based on the principle of "ad-hoc networks" and sensors that are increasingly present in vehicles, on roads and elsewhere, allowing for high-speed communications among objects that previously didn't talk before.
For example, sensors lining the pavement of a highway in Newfoundland where a moose has just passed over could detect its movement and relay that information to cars approaching, notifying them to slow down and keep an eye out. Or sensors inside a car could communicate with those on the road to assist its driver to stay in the lane, for instance at night or if the road were slippery. The system could even switch entirely to autopilot, such as with the computer-guided cars in the Steven Spielberg movie Minority Report.
"That's not science fiction," says Don Aldridge, general manager of research for IBM Canada Ltd., one of DIVA's sponsors, adding that with myriad software already in cars and a growing infrastructure of sensors and wireless communications, "it's all technically doable."
He says that more futuristic applications are a ways off, but today's cars already have hundreds of sensors and microprocessors, with advanced functionality like crash avoidance systems that can turn off cruise control and initiate "active breaking." If cars with that sort of functionality could somehow talk to each other, one car slowing down could prompt the one behind it to do the same.
Mr. Aldridge, a mechanical engineer, says that a car with traction control sensors that is passing over a patch of black ice could relay that information to those coming after it, essentially saying: "You might want to slow down, you're going to hit some ice in a few seconds."
This kind of intelligence could extend to an entire highway or apply to just one lane, where all of the cars drive on autopilot, being controlled by the road and their onboard systems. Such an application could have "huge potential" to alleviate congestion, says Mr. Aldridge, allowing cars to safely drive closer together and allowing for a more efficient use of the road.
Another safety feature of the technology is that the highway sensors would be able to tell how fast cars are driving, and could even relay information about speeders to the local police.
Such applications raise privacy issues, Dr. Boukerche says, adding that the technology also presents a number of security concerns that the DIVA research is considering. "We are starting to attack these problems."
For example, it's important to ensure that software running a car or especially automating an entire highway can be relied on, Mr. Aldridge says. "How do you make sure this thing is bulletproof, and not subject to hackers or terrorists?"
These are all issues for the network protocol and applications experts in DIVA to address, Dr. Boukerche says, with a wide range of disciplines dealing with different areas that could put Canada at the forefront of intelligent transportation systems research.
"It is possible, it is not a dream, it is going to happen in the future," he says, adding that safety measures such as a system to warn drivers of animals ahead could be installed and functioning within five years. "This is truly coming down the road."
Special to The Globe and Mail