A Big Step toward Fully Connected Cars

Cellular Technology Is Becoming Central to an Autonomous Future

Autonomous driving is accelerating swiftly up the hype curve, and for good reason. It stands to transform transportation as we know it, but more importantly, it will have deep and irreversible impacts on society, economies, industry and commerce. The technology is set to disrupt everything, from city planning, car sales and financing, to content business models, traffic flows and policing. The list is endless and our imaginations can only scratch the surface of the effects.

However, despite the potential, we’re still years from reaching this scenario. The auto industry is making rapid progress, but the conversation is all too frequently focused on the vehicle itself. This is, of course, a logical starting point. The car must develop a heightened level of awareness — it has to be able to see and sense. Cameras, radar and lidar create an all-important picture of its immediate surroundings. This sensor fusion and computing opportunity is where investments are heavily centered, as shown by Intel’s $15.3 billion acquisition of Mobileye.

A Car’s Ability to See Isn’t Enough

These capabilities are necessary but insufficient for an autonomous future. The vision for levels 4 and 5 of autonomy in cars will require much more than intelligence based on what the vehicles are able to see. They’ll also have to communicate, anticipate and interpret what’s beyond their line of sight. For example, if a car is aware of an obstacle around a blind corner, it can take action before the risk approaches. Similarly, if a road is closed, that information can be included in the vehicle’s live map service, enabling traffic to be intelligently rerouted.

Systems, maps and infrastructure also need to be able to communicate with cars, and vice versa. This is one reason why, in my view, autonomous driving and investment in smart city projects are more deeply intertwined than departments responsible for planning and strategy appreciate today.

Nonetheless, there are reassuring signs the industry is more urgently addressing the need for vehicle and infrastructure connectivity. Not that this is new. Historically, some automotive companies aligned themselves with the IEEE 802.11p standard or dedicated short-range communications (DSRC). Although this is the legacy technology supported by auto companies, I believe there’s a shift emerging toward cellular vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communication, an alternative solution developed as part of the 3GPP standard which uses direct and network-based communication.

Shifting Gears to Cellular V2X

Cellular V2X is far newer than some other technologies, but it has several inherent advantages, the biggest of which is scale. It can exploit existing network infrastructure to deliver all flavours of V2X communication. Although this is feasible for DSRC and IEEE 802.11p, cellular V2X was mainly designed for communication between vehicles (V2V) and pedestrians (V2P). Enabling that technology to communicate with infrastructure (V2I) would require network investment from the ground up. By contrast, cellular V2X uses the cellular network and will ride the wave of investment in LTE and 5G networks. It also has the advantage of greater range and can operate both in and out of network coverage.

I believe momentum is moving toward cellular V2X. Bodies such as the 5G Automotive Association show that the industry is coming together as companies look to standards, partnerships and shared investments to help drive scale.

Qualcomm’s recent announcement of its 9150 C-V2X chip with support from Audi, Continental, Ford and Groupe PSA is also a positive sign that the sector is making advances. The solution won’t sample until the second half of 2018, but field trials are underway with the Connected Vehicle to Everything of Tomorrow consortium, known as ConVex, LG and Groupe PSA. We should begin to see the chip deployed in vehicles in 2019. Realistically, this will also intersect with more-refined autonomous capability in cars.

A Stepping Stone to Integration of the Modem

Qualcomm’s chip is also a stepping stone to cellular V2X becoming integrated into the modem, which is another benefit over DSRC. This will contribute to an improved business case for cellular V2X, as most new light vehicles are expected to include embedded modems for telematics in the next few years. The autonomous driving opportunity is substantial but also highly complex, as business models, security, regulation, city planning and infrastructure investment all need to evolve in parallel with technology development. Whilst this is complex, progress is speeding up and cellular V2X is poised to become a prominent part of the equation.

FierceWireless first published a version of this article on 25 September 2017. To view the article, please click here.