Accelerating into the future

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 dialogue. 

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 management. 

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 2014. 

"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 themselves." 

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 self-drive initiative.

"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 at Nokia. 

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 machine-to-machine solutions.

"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."

Rich ecosystem 

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 off. 

But Collins says there is still plenty that LTE 4G can do today. "The network side will get better and better," he believes. 

"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 something broader." 

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 roll-out."

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 that."

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.  

Topics: Capacity media, wholesale telecoms, innovation, market strategy