The Sangubashi curve, a notorious stretch of road on one of Greater Tokyo’s Shuto Expressways, was for years a cause of deadly traffic accidents in Japan. Cars would approach the bend at speed, smashing into other vehicles hidden just around the corner and stuck in traffic.
So the country introduced a technological solution: sensors were place around the curve. If they found the stretch of road after the Sangubashi curve to be occupied, and therefore congested, a warning message would be relayed on a screen before the bend for approaching drivers. Soon after installing the system, the Sangubashi curve witnessed a 60% decrease in accidents, and the deployment of similar sensors on other stretches of highway are credited with smoothing traffic and “effectively eliminat[ing] congestion at toll gates”.
The example is buried deep within a European Commission report on the potential for a new form of in-vehicle technology to applied across the continent. But it’s formed the basis a long-term campaign by one of the most powerful women in transport, Violeta Bulc, the EU’s Transport Commissioner, to use road-to-car warnings to make driving through Europe as safe as possible.
Since the Sangubashi system, Japan has become something of a pioneer in C-ITS, or Co-operative Intelligent Transport Systems. Cars equipped with this technology can communicate with each other, surrounding infrastructure and even passing pedestrians, passing drivers key warnings about upcoming changes to their journey.
Bulc has praised the introduction of the C-ITS system in Japan on multiple occasions, routinely crediting the system with a 30% decrease in the number of road traffic accidents since it was introduced in 2016. In an interview with the magazine Euractiv, she added that a University of Michigan study showed that the US could cut fatalities “by 12% per year” if the same technology were to be rolled out across the country.
Her enthusiasm for C-ITS makes sense for the European Union. The institution is keenly aware that improvements in road safety are slowing, even admitting that it is “unlikely” to be able to achieve its objective of a 50% reduction in road-traffic fatalities between 2010 and 2020.
The EU has spent a long time trying to get this technology off the ground, investing in a project across 16 member states on vehicle-to-infrastructure services so that messages about roadworks could be understood by different car manufacturers and in different language environments.
Following Bulc’s interventions, the EU passed a mandate requiring V2X (vehicle-to-everything) technology to be installed in new vehicles by 2024. Car manufacturers including Volkswagen and Renault are reportedly behind the plans.
But some experts think the system will be unlikely to make it into North America, due to the EU’s preference for systems based on WiFi rather than the more nimble – but commercial and as yet undeveloped – 5G technology.
In typically black and white fashion, Bulc told Euractiv that there was no way she would direct the EU to wait for 5G technology to be ready. “I suffer personally when I see that 25,000 people lose their lives [on the road] every year and 137,000 are seriously injured.
“We have technology that can be deployed now and can save lives. I don’t want to be part of those statistics. I don’t want my kids, my friends, anyone a part of those three year statistics because we had the technology and didn’t act.”