Momentum: Issue #58

November 9, 2020

Chris Armstrong on the ‘Transformational’ Nature of Connected Vehicle Technology

Chris Armstrong said the story of his career could be characterized by luckily stumbling into the right thing.

Armstrong, Vice President, CIRRUS/V2X at Panasonic Corporation of North America and ITS America board member, says he often refers to Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book ‘Outliers’ when talking about his career path. “You don’t often have control over where you end up, and sometimes you come around at the right time.”

He always loved physics and math and wanted to be an engineer.  While he studied civil engineering, he was always interested in transportation and was set to become a structural engineer – until the economy crashed in 2008, and he had to come up with a new plan. That new plan included moving to Washington, DC and working on connected vehicle technology “in a basement with no windows” at a Federal Highway Administration research facility. In 2016, he had an opportunity to see how the research could translate into the real world.

“I moved to Colorado to work with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), because (they were) focused on making it real,” he said, “by taking it out of the lab and onto the roadway at scale.”

Little did he know Panasonic was building a huge presence in the state. “I just happened to show up. Some folks realized I knew a thing or two about connected vehicles, and they gave me a chance to be a part of it.” The rest, as they say, was history.

CDOT in 2016 was “very focused as establishing itself as a leader” and wanted to help drive deployment and scale of connected vehicle technology. However, the change in administration in Washington brought about a shift and along with it, uncertainty at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

One of Panasonic’s biggest accomplishments during this time was building, with Kapsch, the first-ever dual mode (DSRC/CV2X) roadside units. “It dynamically changed the industry and helped DOTs mitigate risk while continuing to make progress and not be frozen in place by FCC uncertainty,” Armstrong said.

On the heels of the CDOT partnership, Panasonic launched projects in Utah and Georgia. In Utah, the challenges were how to manage the data and turn it into actionable, valuable information. Georgia, another leader in the connected vehicle space, presented a unique opportunity to engage in a private, public, and philanthropic partnership with Georgia DOT and The Ray.

“Automotive experience and knowledge have been a big part of the value we bring to our customers in Utah and Georgia,” Armstrong said, where they are equipping vehicles with fully populated basic safety messages. In some areas, vehicles are sharing information only about location and speed. In UT and GA, though, the data also includes windshield wiper status, brake status, accelerator status, steering wheel angle, traction control system statues – a lot of information about what is happening inside and outside the vehicle. “The DOTs understand that when the cars hit the roadways, it will really be transformational, so we have to start building now to prepare and launch a platform that can make use of all that data.”

Deployments, however, are facing a curve in the roadway, given the FCC’s vote later this month on reallocating the 5.9GHz spectrum.  

“It is very limiting to reduce the spectrum and on top of that to have devices nearby in the band that can cause emissions and interference,” Armstrong said. “I’m worried about the safety technology not being implemented or scaled because it’s been rendered unusable. I think that is a risk for this industry.”

“It will be positive for the transportation industry to understand and have certainty around which technology is going to move forward,” he continued, “but it doesn’t mean one is better than the other.” He added that he is hopeful this will be followed by a clear timeframe for deployment from the automotive industry and that the spectrum be protected to get the technology into cars.

Armstrong compares V2X technology to seatbelts before they were universally adopted – while many people were resistant, no one can argue they have saved countless lives.

“This is our generation’s opportunity to truly have an impact on the world,” he said. “I think anyone who touches this technology knows how transformational it can be. It is our responsibility to put this into cars so people can be safer and roadways can become more efficient. Anything short of that is a failure in my mind.”