Connected and autonomous car tech at MWC
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:
The Mercedes-Benz AG F015 concept car was just one autonomous car idea showcased at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona

Sam Fenwick takes a look at the key talking points around connected and autonomous vehicles at this year’s Mobile World Congress

While the telecom industry could be described as more of an enabler of connected and autonomous vehicles than a developer of their core functions, there was plenty of informed discussion on both topics at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Wilko Andreas Stark, VP, strategy and Mercedes-Benz cars product strategy & planning at Daimler, says today’s cars are already “highly digital”. He points out that Mercedes-Benz’s new S class has more than 100 million lines of software code, while a Boeing 747 jet only has about 14 million.

“If you own a car [it] might earn money for you [by] transporting other people. This is coming and we strongly believe in it. The next big trend we see is about shared mobility, it’s about the sharing economy,” he says.

The potential consequences of this approach could be surprising. While replacing labour with capital has been going on since the first industrial revolution, the idea that you could buy an autonomous car and have it generate a revenue stream by acting as a taxi when you don’t need to use it might increase inequality across generations. It could further benefit those with capital at the expense of their poorer offspring (who would be their customers), perhaps in the same way that some fear the buy-to-let property market does.

Connected car trends
Olle Isaksson, head of strategy, industry and society at Ericsson, thinks that the higher utilisation of autonomous vehicles (around 95 per cent, compared with the single digit utilisation of today’s vehicles) could mean that there will be a much greater emphasis on vehicle quality than there is now. He notes that mobility service providers will be totally dependent on good quality of service from their networks. “If you have a target of high utilisation of the car you can’t afford to have that being out of use because of no coverage or bad quality of service.”

However, he sees connectivity as a basic enabler and not where the bulk of the business value will reside. Isaksson also says that the trends in the automotive industry and the transport sector are “very similar to when the telecom industry transformed from single voice service devices and networks to a multi-access, multi-service environment...”

In Isaksson’s eyes, it will be consumer demand for video services that drives MNOs to build out their networks and deploy next generation technology. As the same infrastructure could carry data for safety and to boost highways’ efficiency (with each function using a different slice of a 5G network for enhanced security), “we foresee a good business opportunity for the physical road operator and the digital network operator to find a business model that works.”

“Maybe a company will want to subsidise connectivity to their employees’ autonomous cars so that they can work during their journeys,” suggests Stephane Petti, head of M2M and IoT business development at Orange Business Services, while speaking to Land Mobile shortly after MWC.

Volvo Cars’ Concept 26 car cockpit, which was on display at Ericsson’s stand at MWC, transitions between an almost traditional layout that allows for a standard driving experience, and one in which the driver can watch content (adjusted to fit the expected journey time) on a large screen. Could it be a taste of things to come?

As the autonomous car needs to be safe and receive, process and transmit information in real time, Petti believes it will involve mesh networking and highlights the current work being done to standardise a device-to-device communications protocol. “The question is: are we going to deploy it? Does it make business sense? I think it’s going to be the right direction...”

Given that roadside units might be part of a mesh network Petti sees an opportunity for cities to finance these, particularly near schools or dangerous areas, or for the money to come from highway operators.

Who will pay?
A question mark hangs over who will pay for connected car services or how car manufacturers can recoup costs if they come as standard. “We have to find those services that will make the connected car an engaging and motivating value proposal for companies, enterprises and also for consumers,” explains Petti.

“Fleet [management] is not enough, insurance telematics and Wi-Fi in your car is not enough, we really have to scratch our heads because we are not at the point where drivers are willing to pay €10 to €15 per month per car. We have to invent new services that will create more value than [telematics]. The question is are you as a car owner going to pay extra money for services that you already have through your mobile phone? I strongly believe that the core growth and value is in services that we don’t yet know.

“We don’t think we’ll create these as Orange... [However], we’re developing ecosystem management, which is about people like me talking to the industry and trying to put them together to create new ideas and new services, try them, pilot, fail fast and recover quickly,” he says. “Orange is very friendly with start-ups; we have labs in Europe, the UK, Silicon Valley and so on that try to take care of these start-ups and bring them into automotive telematics.”

Another big area for Orange is that of data analytics. Petti says the plan is to crunch large amounts of data through pilot projects, which may result “in a new service that we didn’t think of or rich data that’s an aggregation of several cars’ data together with weather information.”

He also sees value in extending the driver’s journey so that it is initially planned on their mobile phone and seamlessly deals with parking and travel on public transport if required.

Volvo Cars’ Concept 26 car cockpit features a fold-out screen and envisages fitting the length of video content to that of your journey

Connected car services
One example of an opportunity for connected car technology beyond simply driving was a system demonstrated by Sierra Wireless that allows remote control of many of a car’s functions, and remote viewing of the inside of the car. One intended application is to allow users to defrost and bring their vehicle up to a comfortable temperature before they leave their home or office.

Isaksson says Ericsson started to get involved with in-vehicle connectivity back in 2009 as part of a German research project to see if LTE/4G could be used to deliver time- critical warnings of road hazards. One use case is the detection of the driver using enough brake pressure to cause a hard stop, which could hinder traffic flow or potentially lead to a pile-up, and the transmission of warning messages to other cars over GPS-enabled devices such as smartphones or navigation systems. The latency was found to be 150 to 500 milliseconds (depending on whether 3G or 4G networks are used), which is small enough for the brain to perceive as an ‘instant warning’. The research also found that the warnings were not a dangerous distraction to the driver. Isaksson adds that because of the large number of such devices already in circulation only a small proportion of vehicles on the road would need to be equipped with sensors for this to work.

While being given a tour of the GSMA’s Innovation City at MWC Mark Timms, product director - incidents at INRIX, walked me through his company’s road weather service. It aggregates six global weather models and applies them to points on road networks (such as the UK’s M6) spaced every 500 metres to provide higher resolution than that supplied by the road weather stations, which are typically 20 to 25 miles apart. It then uses the forecast to produce alerts for adverse conditions such as heavy rain, snow and poor visibility. Timms explains that the forecast also utilises data from connected cars to further improve the system’s accuracy. “For example, we might see more windscreen wiper detection further up the road and not where we thought that initial alert was based.”

The service is live and available in 21 countries (predominantly mainland Europe, the US and Canada) and already has hundreds of thousands of connected vehicles providing it with temperature data. Timms notes that even inexpensive car models now come with automated windscreen wipers as standard, and cites Gartner Research’s forecast that one in five vehicles will have some form of wireless network connection by 2020. He explains that as the information is archived, it could be used by highway operators to obtain a better picture of the condition of their roads and determine those that are most in need of maintenance.

“One of the challenges for OEMs is that the size of their connected fleet does not give them enough data to make this type of product themselves, which is where we come in. We’re able to aggregate that from different providers,” Timms concludes.

Bringing concepts to life
As a supplier of test and measurement equipment “we sit at the bottom of the food chain,” says Jonathan Borrill, director of marketing at Anritsu. “Once people come to us then we know its a real project. You see a demonstrator, you see a concept. When you see it on a T&M company it means someone is actually investing to push this out in the mass market.

“People are not putting their money down to go live with this [connected cars]. When they put their money to go live with it they buy test equipment and you see companies like us being very busy around it,” he adds.

Borrill highlights the difference in product life cycles between the handset or radio world and the automotive industry. The former has design cycles of six to twelve months, followed by one to two months of field testing. Car design cycles are typically seven years long and are followed by about three years of testing.

“We have all this technology but the first place we can intercept it is three or four years from now, that’s if we get on the current design cycle. If we’re designing for their next project we’re already talking about seven years from now. And we’ve got the mobile community saying 5G [will come in] 2017, 2018. [As far as] the car people [are concerned] their 2018 car is finished, it’s here, it’s just being tested.

“Last year [connected] cars was the big theme. This year it is the connected home. Everyone’s going to connected home, it’s the new use case. People are trying to jump around and find a use that people are actually going to pay for and invest money in.”

A bit of both
One product that was unveiled at MWC with new thermal capabilities straddles connected cars and the smart home: Rambus’ lensless smart sensor (LSS). Instead of the light passing through a lens and having to be perfectly focused before it hits the sensor it uses a very thin diffractive grating ~200 microns thick and ~55 microns wide. Light passes through the sensor and is captured in a way that a computer can interpret.

The LSS is less than one millimetre thick, compared with the 2.5mm to 3mm for small, low quality cameras. It also uses a lot less pixels than a traditional camera, reducing its power consumption. The cost of LSS is significantly lower than traditional optical sensors as the diffraction gratings are a third to several orders of magnitude cheaper than lenses, with the biggest savings seen with thermal sensors because of the high cost of thermal lenses.

Thermal LSS could allow a security system to tell the difference between a person or animal moving around, even in complete darkness. They can also enable air conditioning and heating systems to take the number of people in a room into account in a much faster and more responsive way than with traditional sensors.

Other potential applications for the LSS include eyeball tracking, thermal sensing for automobiles and occupant identification and classification in rooms for HVAC optimisation, lighting and usage optimisation. According to a company spokesperson LSS offer some advantages over PIR sensors, which are good at detecting motion but can’t pick up people when they’re not moving.

Thermal LSS could also improve car safety as they would allow a system to detect the position of passengers and ensure that airbags don’t go off when it would be dangerous for them to do so.

While the killer use case remains elusive a lot of companies are working hard to come up with products and services that collectively work to take the frustration out of tomorrow’s journeys. Given that driving often seems a far cry from the bright, pleasurable experience suggested by the car adverts – and the enormous environmental and energy costs associated with congestion – they are sorely needed.

Click here for more coverage from 2016’s MWC, which explores emerging 5G technology and the IoT

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