VICS, First to Market

SmartWay pretrials on the Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway
SmartWay pre-trials have been conducted on the Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway

VICS, which brought real-time driver information to Japan’s major roads in 1996, is to be superseded by the 5.8GHz DSRC-based SmartWay solution. Takashi Ito, International ITS Research Fellow with the USDOT’s Federal Highway Administration, details progress

Japan’s Vehicle Information and Communication System (VICS) went into operation in 1996. VICS is designed to provide real-time traffic information and alerts to in-vehicle navigation systems with the dual aims of increasing safety and reducing congestion and is broadly analogous with Europe’s Traffic Message Channel (TMC) system.

Since its introduction, it has proven to be hugely popular – about 70 per cent of all navigation devices and 25 per cent of the total car population in Japan now have access, and as of March 2008 over 20 million VICS units had been shipped. The majority are FM-only although some 2.4 million of that total are tri-media, able to receive enriched data services via FM broadcasts as well as via radio-frequency and infrared beacons.

(In Japan, the national expressways, which are the responsibility of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MLIT), are currently equipped with radio-based beacons. Other roads, which fall under the jurisdiction of the National Police Agency (NPA), use beacon systems based on infrared technology. The quality of information provided by the two solutions can be considered comparable.)

Information provided by VICS can be presented visually. This includes icons for different types of incident and colour coding (for instance, congested roads will be shown on vehicles’ navigation system screens in red, roads with flow restrictions in orange and unrestricted, free-flowing roads in green; arrows give a sense of directional flow), although the actual appearance to the user – whether a simplified plan view, for instance, or a full-blown 3D rendition – is a function of navigation system capability.

Growth factors
Two factors have driven the strong growth of VICS.
The first is an effective business model which sees the public and private sectors working in cooperation. The infrastructure side of the system and the collection of traffic information is the responsibility of the public sector.

The private sector is, meanwhile, responsible for the sale and installation of in-vehicle systems. The VICS Center, established on 1 July 1995, is a public-private venture which takes care of the actual processing and provisioning of information to system users.

The second is installation from the outset of adequate infrastructure to allow for a credible service to be maintained. For example, radio beacons are installed approximately every 2km (1.2 miles) on metropolitan expressways and every 10km (6 miles) on local expressways.

That notwithstanding, some Japanese car manufacturers such as Toyota, Nissan and Honda, recognising that it is not possible for financial reasons to instrument all roads to a degree which would allow the gathering of the best-quality information to be truly universal, have started using cellular telephony as a means with which to collect information on vehicles’ speeds and positions in near real time.

This means that the data collection effort can be extended to even the most minor roads. These cellular telephony-based solutions are a complementary infill rather than a replacement for VICS and their use remains in its infancy at present.

A process of consolidation
The current, so-called ‘second-stage’ strategy for ITS deployment in Japan is known as SmartWay. Pre-testing of SmartWay was conducted during 2005-6, with main tests following in 2007. Testing is currently halted but will resume at the end of 2008. Testing took place on the Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway and involved a total of 31 private companies. The location was chosen because it is the most congested and dangerous piece of road in Japan.

Like VICS, SmartWay is a Infrastructure-to-Vehicle (I2V) rather than a Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) solution. It provides users with information on road conditions, including warnings of, for instance, upcoming congestion, accidents/other incidents (including stopped vehicles on a blind curve) and merging traffic.

VICS SmartWay
SmartWay is intended to harmonise information delivery around 5.8GHZ DSRC

Anticipated benefits from the introduction of SmartWay include: fewer rear-end collisions on blind curves; a lower frequency of near-misses (because instances of rapid deceleration would be reduced); and, generally, lower speed when entering bends.

Data from the SmartWay trials conducted thus far, which used the existing VICS beacons, suggest that the effect of such services is appreciable; it has been demonstrated that accident rates can be reduced by as much as 80 per cent.

Although the types of information provided by SmartWay are essentially the same as in VICS, there will be an increased opportunity for convenience applications to achieve a footing. However, one of the main aims of SmartWay is to rationalise and improve the means of information delivery.

Whereas the better-quality information services within VICS are delivered via multiple media, SmartWay is looking to have all information services nationwide delivered via a single medium: 5.8GHz Dedicated Short-Range Communication (DSRC).
DSRC, at 5.8GHz, will allow better-quality, more detailed information to be delivered in a more timely fashion and result in better visualisation for the end user.

Anticipated benefits for drivers include: improved peace of mind; improved safety margins; and assisted route selection. Cooperative infrastructure deployments in the US and Europe will use 5.9GHz; the decision in Japan to use 5.8GHz is because of existing radio spectrum allocations for other uses but more specifically because the country’s national Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) system operates at that frequency.

(ETC operation commenced in Japan in 2001 and has enjoyed significant market growth and penetration since then. As of April 2008, over 22 million ETC units had been shipped, representing a usage rate of 73.7 per cent; the eventual target for usage is 80 per cent.)Challenges to roll out
At the time of the initial deployment of VICS, infrastructure roll-out was the responsibility of the public sector. Three years ago, however, management of Japan’s strategic roads was privatised. This is a development which has implications for the future introduction of the SmartWay system in that there is an impact on where the money will come from to pay for systems procurement and installation.

As a consequence of privatisation, it can be seen that the various expressways’ operators might view SmartWay deployment as less of a priority than satisfaigation system/solution providers) are waiting for the system to be installed before building and releasing products that will interact with the newer DSRC-based solution. On the other, government is waiting for sufficient expressions of interest from the automakers before it takes implementation forward.

A significant education process is needed. To an extent, this is already happening – during the SmartWay trials already conducted there was, over the period 14-17 October 2007, a public demonstration of the new system’s capabilities. Some 1,652 people participated, of whom 667 experienced a test ride on the trial facilities. It is recognised that this was but a start, however, and efforts are ongoing in this regard.

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