Smarter Internet a Must for Driverless Cars

A lot has been said about the need for driverless cars to use connectivity, which should allow future automobiles navigate through the toughest and most challenging scenarios.

Much less has been discussed regarding how that will actually be accomplished and what new technologies it will enable. In the case of 5G, telecommunications companies are quick to promote the greater level of speed. That’s important but the reasons for that greater speed are much more intricate than the hype reveals and may prove to be essential to mobility.

Martin Beltrop, head of Nokia’s mobile networks automotive business, explained that early cellular technologies, such as 2G all the way through 4G LTE, were designed for communications and internet, not automotive. In simple terms, they used many different systems going all the way up and down the cellular connection, creating a world of unpredictable bandwidth and a number of inconsistencies. Virtually everyone with a phone has experienced the frustration of lost connectivity with little or no explanation. With 5G, the cellular connection to the device, whether a car, phone or something else, will be much closer to the edge. “The transportation from your device into where the data is being processed is much shorter and much more reliable,” said Beltrop. “This makes it possible to achieve the requirements for autonomous cars in terms of latency and reliability. It’s local and much more controllable.”

Beltrop added that it is important to be precise in defining what faster internet actually means for automobiles. He spoke about the misconception that greater bandwidth fosters a speedier connection. “In this case that’s not true,” he said. “It really is the time the information is required to go from the operating center to the car and back. That is the important factor here. Not only that this time needs to be short to be able to have remote control when you’re driving at a decent speed, it also needs to be very reliable. All information needs to come at the same time. If it takes longer, then this whole concept doesn’t work.”

Important factors

Why is the edge so important? Uwe Puetzschler, head of Car2X at Nokia described a high-speed scenario in which an autonomous car cannot overcome a particular challenge. If teleoperation is installed, a remote driver could take over and control the vehicle until autonomous mode can safely resume. This is where 5G comes into play. With a slower Internet connection, teleoperation might still be possible but the vehicle would have to drive at slower speeds, potentially forcing the remote driver to exit prematurely.

“In order to support those higher speeds you need better network bandwidth as well as low latency,” said Puetzschler. “Do we need to wait for 5G for that? Clearly not because we will see those automatically driving vehicles quite soon. Testing is happening nearly everywhere around the world. With 4G you can definitely support its use case but the speeds the vehicle can be driven with will be lower in order to keep it safe.”

Reserving bandwidth

Autonomous cars can’t simply share the same internet that every other device is using. Future vehicles will need to exclusively command some of the bandwidth to ensure they aren’t competing with phones streaming games or high-res videos.

With network slicing, which allows a network to be virtually separated into different slices, this shouldn’t be an issue. “One can say, ‘I reserve 20% of the capacity that is always there just for traffic and safety,’” said Beltrop. “They may reserve another 20% for telematics services and then the rest of whatever is left goes to entertainment.”

The capacity for non-critical, non-safety related functions would not be guaranteed. If too many devices pile onto the network simultaneously, hiccups could occur. Those same hiccups would be disastrous in a motor vehicle, which is why automakers and ride-sharing services might be interested in reserving some of the bandwidth. “We need to ensure the function for autonomous driving and for traffic safety are always alive,” Beltrop added. “With this you can guarantee enough bandwidth is reserved to serve cars on a highway.”

Many business models

Puetzschler sees at least three distinct business models surrounding the connectivity ecosystem: mobile network operators, carmakers/fleet owners and road operators. “They all have different interests, motivations and consequently we will see quite a lot of different business models,” said Puetzschler. “Somebody needs to pay for it, and investors are going to want a return on investment. Also, road operators are typically public organizations. They have very big interest in making traffic efficient.”

With millions of cars already connected on some level, full connectivity is likely to arrive long before full autonomy. “We see OEM announcements saying, ‘All our new cars are already connected,’” Puetzschler concluded. “Others saying, ‘All new vehicles will be connected by 2021 or 2022.’ So you can assume connectivity will be a basic functionality.”

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