25 May 2017
| Guy Matthews
The era of the connected car, and beyond that the fully autonomous vehicle, promises to be an interesting journey, and perhaps an important new revenue stream for carriers. But, asks Guy Matthews, are they prepared for some challenging twists and turns on the road ahead?
The concept of the connected car, although still very much a
work in progress, has caught the imagination of many. By
equipping a vehicle with its own mobile broadband internet
access that functions seamlessly regardless of location, a
number of exciting possi-bilities emerge.
Video and audio entertainment can be streamed to passengers
on demand, and navigational information vastly superior to
today’s satnav is available to the driver along
with a wealth of diagnostics.
A connected car has many advanced safety features, such as
automatic breakdown response, connection to digital signs by
the roadside and the ability to pick up information about
driving conditions just ahead.
Communication with other devices – perhaps other
cars, perhaps the smart connected home to which the car is
travelling – becomes possible, either through a simple
voice command or through automated machine-to-machine
Beyond these innovations lies the next leap forward, the
fully autonomous self-driving vehicle.
Sensing a market poised to burst into life, a number of
alliances have sprung up to develop connected-car technology.
The big car makers are naturally at the forefront of these
initiatives, which also take in a spectrum of interested
parties and would-be stakeholders from such disparate worlds as
software development, telematics, car hire and fleet
Some big carriers have become galvanised, knowing that their
networks – and experience of all matters mobile
– will provide the robust digital road down which all
connected vehicles will travel.
AT&T is one of the acknowledged pace setters, with 12
million connected cars already in the US hanging off its
cellular network. Brian Greaves is director of product
marketing management with the company, and works at the
carrier’s Drive Studio in midtown Atlanta, an
innovation centre for connected-car technology that opened in
"What we set out to do was work with car manufacturers and
other industry affiliates, like application developers, to
drive innovation and thought leadership in the connected car
space," he explains.
"We look at everything from infotain-ment to telematics,
including areas like safety, security and diagnostics.
We’re working on vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity,
as well as vehicle-to-infrastructure, and on semi and fully
autonomous vehicles. We provide a lot of the results to car
manufacturers on a white-label basis, so they
don’t necessarily have to develop it all
Network at the core
As might be expected, the core of what AT&T brings to
the party is its network: "Most of our relationships start with
that," says Greaves. AT&T counts over 20 car makers as
partners in its Drive initiative, including leading brands like
Chevrolet, Audi, Buick, Porsche and Jaguar, attracted by the
breadth of network coverage it offers and the likelihood that,
as an operator, it will stay the distance over the lifecycle of
a typical car.
"They also can see the value of other services that
we’re building, such as our global SIM solution,"
adds Greaves. "They might wish to build their cars in Brazil or
China and ship them where they want to. That SIM needs to be
lit and managed ideally by one carrier partner. They can do
that with AT&T."
Makers of network hardware and software are naturally also
in the hunt for a place in the connected-car market. Nokia,
Ericsson and Intel are acknowledged leaders, and Apple has just
started to unveil details of its secretive Project Titan
"We don’t plan on making cars, but we do plan
on making the stuff that keeps those cars connected up to the
network," says Jason Collins, vice president for IoT marketing
He says the vendor is looking at IoT across a number of
vertical sectors, including transportation.
"We actually have a long history in connected car," he
explains. "It started in around 2008 with the launch of LTE. We
had one of the early connected-car prototypes we did in
conjunction with Toyota, Verizon and others."
More recently, Nokia has been working with German enterprise
software maker SAP, software-as-a-service company Concur
Technologies and the car-rental firm Hertz.
All are part of the Nokia-founded IoT Community, an
ecosystem of companies collaborating on the development of
"The notion is how to improve the shared car and rented car
experience by making the car adapt automatically to each
driver," says Collins.
"You arrive at an airport. Your phone will guide you to your
car. When you get into the car your mobile device is the key to
the car, unlocks it, starts it. The car automatically adjusts
itself to you before you get in, with seat and mirrors, the
radio system and the nav preloaded for you from the cloud into
the vehicle, all done for every new user of that car."
Working with Hertz, he says, has been useful, offering a
different insight into the market than a group of technologists
would think of alone. "It’s a rich ecosystem where
different partners bring different mindsets to the challenge,"
he adds. Much of what the connected car will do in the future
relies on the launch of 5G mobile technology, still some years
But Collins says there is still plenty that LTE 4G can do
today. "The network side will get better and better," he
"We know 5G will deliver broader bandwidth and lower
latency. This will be better for vehicle-to-vehicle
communications. Networks today are good for certain things, but
for others like ultra-high definition map-loading you need
As things stand, 4G is not exactly ubiquitous and seamless
on the world’s highways, admits Paul Carter, CEO
of mobile network testing firm Global Wireless Solutions, which
has recently conducted the UK’s first
connected-car mobile network test.
"4G networks will provide the backbone for the mesh of
different wireless technologies that will support the future of
connected vehicles," he says.
"Our consumer research shows that consumers still see the
smartphone providing the hub for entertainment content while on
the move. They then anticipate that their future cars will be
capable of critical communication and autonomous driving within
a decade, giving operators a timeline for 4G network
improvements on motorways, as well as 5G technology
Turning point with 5G
Alex Gledhill, Intel’s global account director
for Vodafone, agrees that 5G will be a turning point.
"It’s something we at Intel are supporting with
our Intel Go automotive 5G platform, a 5G-ready test platform
for vehicle-to-everything communications," he explains. "We
predict that autonomous vehicles will generate about 4,000
gigabytes every day, and this data will need to be shared
continuously among vehicles to help them learn.
"5G is also expected to deliver ultra-low latency and
vehicle-to-vehicle, or V2V, connectivity for the era of
autonomous vehicles," says Gledhill.
"Network operators offering 5G connections will be the
crucial bridge for this data, and stand to benefit from
successfully commercialising their role in the technology."
Jeff Warra, senior business develop-ment engineer at vendor
Spirent Communications, looks further ahead to when the
autonomous car is effectively an office on wheels, creating
even stronger demand for a highly reliable and secure
connection on the way.
"This will require additional bandwidth with low-latency
from the cellular carrier networks to support millions of
vehicles handing off connections from tower to tower or when
calibrating and tweaking stickiness when going from 5G to 4G to
3G back to 5G," he says.
The network is arguably the most important part of the
connected car ecosystem, believes Alexandra Rehak, IoT practice
leader with analyst firm Ovum. "It needs to be able to process
huge amounts of data very, very quickly," she says. "If you
look at the business case for 5G, a lot of it is around
supporting just this type of massive communication."
But she warns that returns on investment are likely to be
long term in nature. "It’s undoubtedly an
opportunity for operators, near the top of the list of
priorities for many of them," she says.
"But there are quite a few steps along the way between what
we have now and the fully autonomous vehicle. There are
short-term revenue opportunities, like providing entertainment
services in the car, but I don’t see anybody
making a lot from that at this point. The bigger play is
probably something like supporting fleet management."
In the meantime, she says, it’s about
enrichment through finding or acquiring partners from different
parts of the value chain. "This is why you’ve
seen, for example, Verizon going out and buying a telematics
firm," she points out. "Vodafone has done similar with Cobra.
The smaller carriers don’t have the resources for
The connected car may not become a carrier cash-cow in the
foreseeable future. But for those with the resources to invest,
the appetite to seek out complementary partners and the
patience to bide their time for a return, the rubber is already
hitting the tarmac.