The drive to vehicle autonomy: Some key evolutions

The connected car is arguably the next mobile platform. This will not be a rapid shift, but a gradual evolution involving several steps, and taking many years. It will evolve from where we are today with cars making connections to and through the driver’s smartphone, toward a converged future where the vehicle has its own connection to the internet and becomes increasingly autonomous. 

A recent report highlighted many of the key issues facing the connected car market over the next several years. A lot of the material written about connected cars has focused on their autonomy, but here we’d like to look primarily at the connectivity issues.   

The first step in the evolution is driver assistance, which we’re seeing in a number of vehicles today — mostly high-end vehicles for now. Driver assistance technology is comprised of things like adaptive cruise control, lane guidance systems, assistive braking, and of course a wide range of navigational and diagnostic tools — some of which are connected to the internet. The first step in connectivity is for these vehicles to be connected via the driver’s phone, but eventually, these vehicles will have their own connections.   

People who are buying a new car today — and in the near future — are primarily interested in smartphone integration. This means that the cars will have the ability to integrate with many of the driver’s most frequently used smartphone applications — making calls, sending texts, listening to music, getting calendar alerts and other notifications. Over the top of all of this is navigation. Right now, and in the short term, the navigation is really based in the smartphone and specifically in the GPS chip.   

The next phase will bring us further enhancements to navigation as the technology evolves to supplement navigational data with data generated by the car itself - speed, acceleration/deceleration/braking data and eventually data collected via the sensors on the vehicle itself, LIDAR, radar, camera collection HD images building a HD 3D map. Currently, only limited data is collected via crowdsourced apps, like Waze, on the smartphone. In the future, we’ll see it directly populated with much richer data from the car itself and uploaded to the cloud through an onboard cellular connection in the car.   

Obviously, as these connections evolve from being smartphone-based to being embedded in the car itself, the car manufacturers are going to have to collaborate closely with software companies and wireless telecommunications providers to develop suitable applications customized to the needs and capabilities of the vehicle itself.   

As we look out even further, there will be more safety-focused enhancements — vehicles will be able to communicate with each other to determine distance and inter-vehicle gap information, speed and directional information, and highly granular GPS information, all for the purpose of avoiding collisions and improving safety. This data will be uploaded to the cloud in real time over highly reliable, low-latency cellular connections, and will also be available to the user via an augmented/virtual reality heads-up display. Autonomous driving vehicles will also need to learn the, sometimes erratic, behavior of human-driven vehicles, share Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) and sensor data and adjust how they operate on the road to counterbalance the risks that they monitor and assess constantly.   

However, it’s not just the cars we need to look at. Once cars are connected, and once homes are connected, then the car and the home will be connected to each other, and they’re going to both be connected to the city, and the car will be connected to the grid. Over the longer term, these systems will all be interconnected and will work together to optimize the city’s energy efficiency, traffic flow and safety. Today, things are being developed in more isolated ways, but over time they will become increasingly integrated, where every player, every manufacturer, and every city will look at these issues collectively and find ways to improve all the systems together.   

This level of integration over the longer term will require a fairly significant level of government involvement and cooperation so that users can have consistency as they travel from Country A to Country B to Country C and so on.   

There’s another issue at play here that merits some deeper discussion: harmonization. When we talk about harmonization in this market, we’re talking about how vehicles from one manufacturer will communicate with vehicles from another in real time. Standards will play an important role here over the long run, but we won’t likely have standardized sensor data from connected cars from day one. 

There are already some excellent examples of industry collaboration and standardization to look at. Recently, the three biggest German car manufacturers - Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz — got together and purchased Here from Nokia to create a consortium of sensor data sharing. This is not a global standard yet, of course, but it is a collaboration designed to exchange data from these three different manufacturers. This can have some very compelling use cases. For example, if one car (let’s say an Audi) senses a particular condition on the road, it will be able to share that data with a Mercedes that isn’t able to sense that data yet. This will lead to some improvements in safety, accident avoidance, and navigational improvement.    

There’s also the concern of integration between connected cars and legacy cars, meaning those without internet connections. Every year, some 70 to 80 million vehicles are sold worldwide - some of them passenger cars, some trucks. In the US, for instance, the average age of a car is about 10 to 12 years. So even though, eventually, all new cars are going to be connected, there will always be some legacy vehicles on the road. That number will decrease over time, but will probably never completely reach zero. There are some companies that make devices that can provide some basic connectivity to legacy vehicles. 

For example, most cars made after 1996 have an onboard diagnostics (OBD) port somewhere under the dashboard, and several startups have come up with ways to use the OBD port to collect (and in some cases transmit) data that can be used for certain aspects of vehicle-to-vehicle communications. So even though it’s fairly rudimentary data that is collected through the OBD port, it’s possible to enable a relatively old car to participate in the V2V world, even though it won’t be a full integration. Over time, those aftermarket plug-in devices will come with some increased functionality, but will never approach or match the functionality of the fully connected cars.    

Serhad Doken, Vice President of Inovation Partners, InterDigital

Image Credit: Karsten Neglia / Shutterstock