How to navigate the connected car's complex communications infrastructure
The driverless car, for a long time anticipated as an invention belonging to the future, seems to have arrived. Trials in four UK cities were announced just recently by the government.
For the driverless vehicle to be truly ‘connected,’ and to deliver benefits of safety, convenience and comfort, it must be one part of a whole communications infrastructure. Not just in the car but all around it, as the car needs to interact with its environment and other vehicles on the road.
People question the safety of a car driving itself. Which is understandable; it is a significant mind-shift. Without being consciously aware of it, drivers assess complex information all the time to make split-second decisions. We trust ourselves with this task, but it would seem we are not as good at it as we would perhaps think.
The Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology (POST) suggests that the majority of road accidents are caused by human error, with only five per cent down solely to technical failure. For connected cars to exhibit better ‘observation’ skills than us they must be in constant communication with other users, and controllers of the road environment – including other vehicles and infrastructure such as traffic lights.
A communications ecosystem equips the connected car to deal with factors that impact driving conditions, such as the weather, and the actions of other drivers.
Weather and traffic alerts can directly communicate to vehicles the need to prepare for driving conditions up ahead, such as heavy rain or traffic congestion. The cars themselves – no longer isolated as individuals but now able to interact with fellow road users - can share information that can help the smooth and safe continuing flow of traffic.
For example, car A plans to overtake car B. It can communicate this information in advance and share its approach speed so that car B can prepare. It can for instance ‘decide’ to slow down, adjust its road position or take other action to ensure the safe completion of the manoeuvre.
For this to work, data needs to flow in a seamless way so that communication, reaction and action is perfectly co-ordinated.
Many players create this communications ecosystem. Manufacturers develop the car’s communication system; governments manage the road infrastructure. For the elements to interact successfully – and to function as a system – standards are needed.
So far, they are being defined in a fragmented way, with differing approaches in Europe and the US. Global standardisation is required because cars cross national boundaries. The last half century or so has taught us that in-country standards can stunt progress.
A step-change in global business was achieved through the technology revolution – the widespread adoption of the internet and an explosion in data - all made possible through the universal standard of IP which allows seamless industry communication. This is what is needed for the Internet of Things (IoT) and specifically for connected cars.
The good news is that governments are serious about this progress and indications are that they will work towards a common goal. On-board diagnostics in cars are already standardised across the UK, US and Europe.
Connectivity possibilities for the wide spectrum of businesses concerned with the automotive industry then become many and varied. A car experiencing a mechanical problem could communicate the fault to the manufacturer or dealership. If the problem is serious, it could generate an alert for an instant appointment, if not it could schedule a service, perhaps even interacting with a calendar app to make a provisional booking.
Should a driving accident occur, notification to police and medical services can be almost automatic as can information conveyed to insurers.
As driverless and connected cars continue to develop they can approach a state of full autonomy – the prospect of independent transport where humans are completely absent. This can usher in the era of fully automated delivery, with the potential to revolutionalise aspects of the service industry. In ten or 15 years’ time we could receive our pizzas via a fully autonomous pizza delivery vehicle that drops-off the takeaway and is able to take payment by credit card.
The list of possibilities is impressive and long. Getting to this level of connectivity is not going to be without its issues, of course. At the top of that list is security, which is of paramount importance. With this level of networked communication, the dangers posed by anyone capable and motivated enough to hack the system could be serious.
Moving vehicles are dangerous objects and the thought of them responding to false commands or information, potentially bringing about accidents, is a sobering one. The need for robust security and understanding of data privacy and its uses is therefore a big consideration as the connected car matures and evolves.