Networks become useful when they reach a point of critical mass of users or nodes, whether we are talking about the postal service, voice telephony or the public Internet. These all emerged from the shadows of wealth, privilege or academia to transform commerce and social activity across the planet once enough people were connected to make them useful media for communication and interactivity.
The same is now happening with the connected car and visitors to this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC 2017) in Barcelona would have concluded that the tipping point there was coming closer, to be reached within a year or two. It is already a huge market, set to earn $52.5 billion for 2017 and running currently at a CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) of almost 25%, according to recent report from professional services group PwC. But as that report concedes, 70% of that revenue is derived from a relatively small number of premium vehicles and a lot of it is merely offsetting declines in legacy systems such as stand-alone entertainment and Sat Nav consoles.
But it is precisely because traditional revenue sources are declining that manufacturers are turning to the connected car faster than had been forecast to seek new business opportunities, which was very evident at MWC 2017. Such is the scale of the emerging market that other players not traditionally associated with the automotive market are piling in with huge investments. Apple is reported to have invested $10 billion in its iCar electric car initiative, while Samsung has agreed to buy Harman International Industries, a specialist in auto electronics, for $8 billion, marking a major push into connected vehicles.
These opportunities fall in two categories, one relating to personalization and the other inter-vehicle interaction, although with some overlap between the two. The smartphone will be at the centre of personalization around the vehicle, exploiting cellular, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity in applications such as virtual car keys, which enable individuals to download their credentials for their own and hired vehicles via an app. Users would then be able to open and lock cars for which they are authorized just by tapping on the screen, as well as transmit messages to their cars such as to turn on the heating or air conditioning a few minutes before they start driving. The whole field of personalization around the connected car will be huge, although naturally security is a major challenge given that any major breach could undermine confidence in the whole venture.
The second area of inter-car connectivity has emerged as a key component of full autonomous operation since this would require interaction between vehicles to reach its full potential. A variety of safety features that can only be enabled through direct connectivity between vehicles will be essential before full autonomous driving becomes viable on a large scale and endorsed by legislation. Such features will include electronic brake lights, which allow an autonomous vehicle to react to another vehicle in front braking sharply when it is out of view for some reason, because of fog or obstacle in between for example. Another key feature for autonomous driving to realize its full potential is platooning, where vehicles can be much closer together at high speeds than they are today, forming electronically coupled “road trains”. This would require real time wireless exchange of information between vehicles, as well probably as higher level control from a centralized system. There would be propagation of warnings to vehicles behind a traffic accident to slow down and so avoid a multiple collision.
Inter-car connectivity would also enable near real time communication for more effective in-vehicle navigation, taking account of varying traffic conditions and emerging obstacles much more quickly than is possible at present. Achieving the required level of connectivity with sufficient performance and resilience remains an ongoing challenge, although significant progress has been made and is a focus for Globetouch as an enabler of the connected car, among others. One of the challenges lies in creating a highly flexible and malleable network that allows hierarchical communications, so that transmission of given data is as far as possible confined to the vehicles that need it. For example, data for electronic braking is only relevant to immediately adjacent vehicles, while real time navigation data is applicable over a wider area but still relatively local, having no value at all to a vehicle over 100 Kms away. On the other hand, data relating to a driver’s performance or vehicle safety would be collected from all points and aggregated centrally, before then being passed on to relevant parties such as car manufacturers or insurers.
The challenge then is to establish fluid wireless networks comprising intermittent connections that are constantly being reconfigured, overlaid by intelligence that determines which data goes where. So-called Vehicular Adhoc Networks (VANETs) have evolved to support the required dynamic topology and intermittent connectivity that is able to cope with high vehicle mobility. Fortunately VANETs have been able to exploit work on the broader concept of mobile ad hoc networks (MANETs) dating back at least two decades to early deployments of laptop computers connected by the first Wi-Fi networks within enterprises or campuses. This has evolved through smartphones, tablets and most recently other Internet of Things (IoT) devices, including the connected car.
VANETs take this to a new level because of the widely varying requirements for locality between different data types and the high agility required. Each vehicle would be both a client and a node on the network, functioning as an adaptive wireless router. It will require smart software, incorporating artificial intelligence, to set up and maintain connections between relevant vehicles temporarily while they are sufficiently close, taking account of the variations in locality between data types.
It is clear than, as was discussed at MWC 2017, that the connected car remains a work in progress and a source of fundamental innovation at the wireless network level. This is a great opportunity not just for the traditional participants of the automotive supply chain but also end to end mobile ecosystem providers such as Globetouch, which is well placed to enable the underlying intelligent connectivity and integration through a combination of internal innovation and strategic partnerships.