The driverless vehicle revolution will grind to a halt without fast connectivity

The UK is actually doing pretty well in the driverless car revolution. Last year the citizens of Milton Keynes witnessed the trial of a driverless vehicle on their streets and this year London has been the setting for Volvo’s “Drive Me” try-out, along with a separate project using an automated “milkfloat” to deliver groceries in Greenwich. 

Yet it is not just the technology that is advancing driverless-ness in the UK.  The country also has a suitable legal framework, the right regulatory oversight, security and insurance provision to accelerate this revolution. Developments in autonomous car insurance, for example, have led to new codes of practice for the testing of autonomous vehicles. 

Even the government is getting on board, having launched a consultation paper on automated vehicles amid positive noises from ministers.    

It all suggests that the future of transport is quickly coming upon us, achieving a giant leap towards the efficiency, convenience and luxury of the “tech utopias” envisaged by science-fiction writers and startups from Silicon Valley to Soho. However, rather than expecting these advances to roll up automatically, cities and urban areas need to ensure their roads – and communications.

If the country wants to ensure driverless cars can maintain connectivity and optimal performance and safety, telecommunications companies in particular, need to ensure their technological infrastructure can manage the increasing demand the machines will place upon their networks.   

The networks are what drive the benefits 

While autonomous vehicles are already present on closed areas across Europe, in the form of logistics vehicles, the current progression of the technology suggests that we will be seeing autonomous vehicles enter the mass market and begin filling public motorways by as early as 2025. 

The introduction of driverless cars to the everyday lives of commuters will bring a number of key benefits. The most important and often touted of these benefits lie in the realm of safety. It is still the case that human error plays a role in the majority of traffic incidents occurring today. Automation will spell an end to poor judgement and distracted driving by equipping vehicles with a range of sensors that will always be at full alert. 

Driverless cars are also expected to result in reduced CO2 emissions, as these vehicles will be in constant communication with one another to ensure roads don’t become congested and journey times remain as consistent as possible. For passengers, the most noticeable benefit will be the added convenience that automation will bring as it frees them to pursue other activities – such as talking with each other or reading – while sitting in their cars.  

But before driverless cars can hit the road and these benefits can be realised, a number of important changes will have to take place. 

The urban areas must address connectivity 

Today, even the most advanced cities are not prepared for autonomous vehicles. The UK, however, is in a leading position for the driverless car revolution, not only technologically but also in terms of legal framework, regulation, security and insurance solutions. This position is highlighted by the recent driverless car test in Milton Keynes, as well as the government’s recently launched consultation paper on automated vehicles. On the subject, Transport Minister Claire Perry recently stated: “Driverless cars are the future. I want Britain to be at the forefront of this exciting development.” 

Preparing for this future, from the view of federal and local governments, will mean setting the necessary rules and framework to allow other parties to invest in and offer attractive services to owners of automated cars, such as navigation information. 

Yet connections must be reliable. As cities become increasingly congested, local authorities will want to use IoT technologies to ease all their transport and traffic problems with an integrated solution, in the process reducing the threats to health from pollution. Smart cities are a vital cog in enabling driverless cars, both technologies rely on ultra-high connectivity which can connect the growing demand for this from customers in major cities.  

If there are gaps in the infrastructure, the development of truly smart or driverless electric vehicles will be jeopardized, because either their automatic driving processes will be interrupted, or their owners will find the batteries constantly run out before they can find a charging point. Intelligent traffic management systems also require the interaction between vehicles and infrastructure to be seamless if journeys are not to become too irksome or difficult. 

Telecommunications companies will also play a major role in preparing the roads for automated vehicles, with both mobile and fixed networks forming the backbone for their functionality. Though their work may not be visible to most consumers, autonomous vehicles are unlikely to take off if networks do not meet their specific requirements, which include short latencies, widespread coverage areas, consistent connection speeds and secure links. Standalone systems in driverless cars will not be sufficient for their operation. 

Today we can already see how mobile connectivity is driving innovation in the automotive sector, with features like call centre support and enhanced navigation systems, which provide additional information such as nearby traffic jams, appearing in many new models. In fact, emergency call functions will soon be a required feature for every new car in Europe. 

A poorly-functioning network will stymie vehicle-automation and jeoparidise safety 

The viability and success of autonomous vehicles will be entirely dependent on the availability of agile, reliable and widespread connectivity. Without it, these vehicles will be unable to effectively communicate with one another and their traffic, map and emergency systems. In order to achieve the necessary level of connectivity, telecommunications networks must be committed to regular testing by respected benchmarking companies. Without such testing, telecommunications companies will not be able to identify gaps and inadequacies in their services, nor will drivers, governments and insurance companies be completely confident in the safety and benefits of autonomous vehicles. 

Though there may be serious legislative and legal checkpoints to reach before autonomous vehicles become a reality, perhaps the most important milestone will be achieving reliable and agile connectivity that can enable the many benefits of driverless cars.  

Hakan Ekmen, Chief Executive, P3 communications GmbH

Image Credit: Jamesteohart / Shutterstock