Computer science professor Mario Gerla and researcher Giovanni Pau at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science envision using cars as computer nodes in a mobile network on wheels.

By M. Abraham

It’s no secret Americans love their cars and modern computer systems have enhanced vehicle performance and safety. Computer science professor Mario Gerla and researcher Giovanni Pau at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science envision the next step is to take that digital processing power and push it outwards even further – by using cars as computer nodes in a mobile network on wheels.

Computers already have made their way out from under the hood and into the passenger space with systems such as GPS navigation, as well as services that can unlock a car by satellite, and Wireless LAN capability will soon be installed by car manufacturers to make driving safer.

“We have all of these computer devices as integrated systems inside our cars,” said Gerla. “It’s time to extend that concept. Computers are already being installed in many vehicles, and wireless capability will soon follow, so a mobile network deployment would only require the relatively low-cost addition of sensors to the vehicle’s roof and bumpers, and configuring the computer with new ‘mobile’ applications.”

The team at UCLA Engineering’s Network Research Lab, led by Gerla, is looking at reinventing cars and networks based on the principles of a wireless, mobile ad-hoc networking platform, or MANET. The MANET platform allows moving vehicles within a range of 100 to 300 meters of each other to connect, and car by car, create a network with 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.

“We use standard radio protocols such as Digital Short Range Communication, or DSRC, combined with wireless LAN technology to create networks between vehicles equipped with onboard sensing devices. These devices can gather safety-related information as well as other complex multimedia data, such as video. The most essential aspect of this network is that it is not subject to memory, processing, storage, and energy limitations like traditional sensor networks,” said Pau. “It relies on the resources of the vehicle itself, along with those vehicles around it.”

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

While similar to a Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN), a mobile network has to perform tasks far more complicated than connecting one wireless computer to another – it must be able to distinguish between multiple moving vehicles (nodes), determine the signal strength emanating from each one, gauge its speed, who might have priority, such as a police car or fire engine, and what kind of data is being exchanged like voice, data, or video – all at the same time.

The benefits of this type of network are broad, explains Gerla. Day-to-day driving could be safer and more convenient – accidents could be prevented if drivers have access to pertinent, real-time information such as collisions or changes in traffic patterns ahead.

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

On crowded freeways in Southern California, accidents could be prevented if drivers have access to pertinent, real-time information such as collisions or changes in traffic patterns ahead, Gerla pointed out.

Importantly, the technology could also provide life-saving communications between emergency personnel. During Katrina and the attacks on 911, communication infrastructures were destroyed and first responders were unable to communicate. A mobile vehicle network could provide an essential lifeline for emergency personnel and others to stay connected when all other networks fail.

The benefits of a mobile network are already being explored by the California Department of Transportation in conjunction with Gerla’s team. Gerla and Pau are working with CalTrans to develop both the vehicle sensors that detect highway problems — such as large potholes — and the mobile network that would transmit this information instantly. With immediate access to roadway information, CalTrans officials would be better equipped to make decisions about where and in what priority to make repairs, saving CalTrans crews time and energy, and saving taxpayers money.

Visit Gerla’s faculty page by clicking here.