Everybody is talking about the Internet of Things (IoT) and the connected car is perhaps where the most progress has been made. But what exactly is a connected car and what has it got to do with 5G? Read on for everything you need to know!
A connected car is one that is equipped with internet access and, usually, a wireless local area network. It should not be confused with a driverless (also known as a self-driving or autonomous) car. While a driverless car must be connected to the internet in order to operate and is years away from commercial reality, a connected car need not be self-driving and is already on the market. This guide will explore how connected cars have developed in recent years, what they enable and what’s in store in the future when 5G becomes reality.
Electronic systems have been replacing mechanical ones in cars since the 1970s and the pace has picked up rapidly in recent years. In-vehicle electronics broadly fall into two categories: to aid driver control with functions like ABS or power steering; and to control devices within the vehicle – encompassing anything from lights, windscreen wipers and doors to entertainment and communications equipment. Most recently we’ve seen advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) like adaptive cruise control or parking assist, which are often camera based, as well as embedded telematics for things like navigation, vehicle monitoring and hands-free calling.
The systems need to be able to communicate with each other and in real-time. For example, the speed of the vehicle can be estimated by the engine controller or wheel rotation sensors, and is needed in order to adapt the steering effort, control the suspension or even choose the best windscreen wiper speed. Current high-end cars can have thousands of signals exchanged by around 70 electronic control units (ECUs).
The various functions can have different needs in terms of performance, dependability and predictability. It’s clear that automatic airbag deployment is a far more critical system than climate control and must therefore be able to rely on accurate and timely transfer of data. Today’s vehicles therefore have multiple embedded networks with different data transmission speeds that are interconnected by gateways.
The data created by all these devices and systems is already being used to deliver a wide range of services such as predictive vehicle maintenance, fleet management and tracking road gritters. Car manufacturers are using the data to improve their products and cut warranty costs. On the consumer side, black box insurance can lower premiums by basing them on the driving style and patterns of the individual, collected from a device in the car, rather than statistics. And data collected from road infrastructure is being used to monitor traffic flow or alert to potential issues, such as slow vehicles or debris on the road, to improve traffic management.
Back in 2014, Google launched Android Auto and Apple launched CarPlay to connect Android and iPhone devices, respectively, to car infotainment systems. As in other areas of our lives, in the car the smartphone has gone way beyond being a device for entertainment. A whole slew of apps has been brought to market to enable everything from unlocking and starting a car from a distance, to finding a parking space, to checking the battery level of an electric car.
The European Emergency Call (eCall) initiative was voted into law in April 2015, decreeing that from April 1 2018 all new cars and small vans must be fitted with an eCall device. Triggered by airbag sensors, eCall automatically sends data – such as the type of vehicle, fuel used, time of accident, location and direction of travel – to the 112 emergency number. The aim is that emergency services can respond more quickly and appropriately to the incident in order to reduce the severity of injuries and the number of deaths on Europe’s roads.
Not everyone was in favour. Britain objected to the project on the grounds of cost and data privacy, but its objection ultimately counted for nothing. The cost argument seems spurious – the estimated €100 addition to the price tag of a new car isn’t much when considering the total cost. But the data privacy considerations are another matter, and were indeed the reason legislation was not implemented sooner. The concern is that the system could potentially be used to monitor and track a motorist’s movements. While this could be useful as a law enforcement tool (indeed in late 2015 a driver in the US was caught after a hit and run accident when her car’s eCall-type system automatically dialled 911), the idea that ‘big brother is watching you’ does not sit well with many.
V2V and V2E
In-vehicle communications have come a long way and will evolve still further, but the next generation of vehicular communication will extend beyond the vehicle.
Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) connectivity will enable vehicles to communicate with others on the roads so drivers will know where others are located, where they are going and at what speed. With advance warning of traffic build-up, an accident or a motorbike they might otherwise have difficulty seeing, drivers will be able to adapt their driving accordingly, making for a safer and potentially faster journey.
Vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communication will connect everything on the roads – not just vehicles but infrastructure like traffic lights, gantries and lampposts – as well as the roads themselves. They will all exchange data collected from sensors, on the condition of the roads, the traffic on them, the surrounding environment.
The potential use cases are many and varied. Sensors on cars, even when parked, could be used to monitor air quality, identify parking spaces, locate missing pets or monitor waste bin collections. The timing of traffic lights could be automatically changed according to the amount and directionality of traffic at any given time, speeding up journey times and reducing congestion. Roads in need of repair could be identified quickly and repaired before they present a danger, and at a time when traffic will be light or can be easily re-routed, improving road safety and reducing the inconvenience and cost of roadworks.
It’s a long way off but if we ever get to the point where all vehicles, roads and road infrastructure are connected, then traffic will be automatically routed more quickly, smoothly and safely and that’s when fully autonomous vehicles will really come to the fore.
Where does 5G come in?
Setting aside cost and security (in terms of both data privacy and hacking potential) considerations, the network is the bottleneck for connected cars to reach their full potential. In-vehicle connectivity can happily run off mobile signals when they are available, but many of the more forward-looking use cases will need better out-of-vehicle network connections in order to work, with continuous and reliable reception, always-on connectivity and the capacity to transmit and receive huge amounts of data.
Ultimately lives will be at stake. 4G simply will not cut it and 5G will be vital to the safe running of connected vehicles on our roads and to support a future of fully autonomous vehicles and truly intelligent road infrastructure.