The 2020 VW Golf 8 could make smart cars mass-market

Volkswagen's Golf may have given many drivers their first taste of the open road, but the 2020 VW Golf 8th Generation could well do the same for car-to-car communications. Unveiled earlier this week, the Golf 8 debuts plenty of new technology for Volkswagen, including a number of new hybrid models. However, it's the Car2X system that might have the biggest impact.

Car2X is VW's branding for a combination of vehicle-to-vehicle (aka V2V, car-to-car, or C2C) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2X). In effect, it allows a connected car to communicate with either another vehicle nearby, or a piece of infrastructure, and share time-sensitive information.

While the theory is straightforward, there are several different ways by which Car2X-style technologies can be implemented. Some automakers are waiting for 5G to be popularized before they start deployment, since the next-generation connectivity has features like low-latency and low-power modes which could be beneficial for C2C. VW, though, is opting for another standard, known as WLANp.

WLANp, also known as IEEE 802.11p, is the underlying technology for DSRC (dedicated short-range communications). That's one of the prevailing car-to-car or vehicle-to-infrastructure technologies used in the US. Related to WiFi, it's intended for data exchange on the 5.9 GHz band between potentially fast-moving vehicles and the smart city hardware they might drive past.

Rather than routing data through a cellular network, even though the Golf 8 will have an embedded 4G LTE connection, WLANp allows for direct communication. That, VW points out, helps with privacy too, since there's no cloud service sitting in-between to keep a record of the data exchanged.

"With WLANp, vehicles receive information in a matter of milliseconds from other traffic participants and their own environment, such as traffic lights at intersections or lane closure trailers on motorways," Volkswagen explains. In urban environments, Car2X has a range of around 150 meters, or just shy of 500 feet. Out on more open roads, such as highways and in rural areas, Car2X can potentially reach more than five times that.

The data exchanged will depend on how VW uses Car2X. In its first generation, the automaker has been using it to notify other vehicles in the vicinity of accident locations and where traffic congestion is. Sudden braking maneuvers can trigger an alert via Car2X too, or the presence of emergency services vehicles like ambulances.

"With Car2X, the driver is notified that an emergency vehicle is approaching and from which direction even before it's possible to hear the siren," Thomas Biehle, Director of Cooperative Security and Electronic Processes at Volkswagen, explains. "This allows cars to pull over and create a clear path for the vehicle – which can save valuable seconds in an emergency."

Volkswagen isn't the first automaker to deploy a car-to-car technology commercially. Cadillac launched V2V in the US back in 2017, making it standard on the CTS sedan. It broadcasts the vehicle's location, speed, direction of travel, and surrounding traffic details, and so can issue warnings to other V2V-equipped Cadillacs that there are obstacles in the road, congestion, unexpectedly stopped traffic, and slippery conditions. Nearby recipients would flash up a warning in the driver's display.

The problem is that those nearby recipients need to also be driving a recent Cadillac CTS. The company sold less than 2,500 of those in the US in Q1 2019, meaning the likelihood of two being near each other, when there's a V2V-worthy event taking place, is probably fairly rare.

That's where the 8th generation Golf comes in. In the US, with a replacement model in the pipeline, VW sold more than 3,600 Golf cars in June 2019 alone. That in turn pales compared to Europe, meanwhile, where VW sold over 37,000 Golf cars in the same month.

Combined with VW making Car2X standard on the Golf, it means that Golf 8 drivers will be far more likely to be within wireless range of another compatible vehicle. VW is also implementing Car2X across other models, which will also be able to communicate with the new Golf. That could well encourage other automakers to adopt the DSRC standard, and indeed cities and other municipalities. Potential applications there include flagging empty or soon-to-be-vacant parking spaces, as well as automatically processing payments and tolls.

"Swarm intelligence is becoming a reality, representing the beginning of a new phase of traffic safety," VW predicts, ambitiously. While it's generally sensible to take a somewhat conservative view on new technology in the automotive industry, there's no denying that technologies like V2V and Car2X are dependent on blunt scale before they can gain traction. If the Golf 8 can deliver that scale, it may be that we don't need to wait for 5G prevalence before talkative cars become commonplace.