Articles, Connected Car, Smart Mobility, Vehicle Automation

Connectivity: Can Autonomous Cars Survive Without It?

Autonomous vehicles may have started as science fiction in films like Minority Report, but manufacturers insist that cars will drive themselves in the not-too-distant future. This shift in driver control (from user to computer) is easily the greatest the auto industry has ever seen. At the very least this technology could reduce accidents by assisting bad drivers or by taking them off the road entirely. There are, however, a number of questions that need to be answered before the first fully autonomous vehicle arrives. One of the most important involves connectivity. In addition to cameras, LiDAR, radar and an array of other sensors, driverless cars are expected to connect to the cloud for increased safety and improved navigation.

It all sounds good on paper, but connectivity is not perfect. It can (and does) fail on occasion, leaving smartphone users in the dust. Now imagine a motor vehicle driving through a rural town in the middle of nowhere. What happens if and when the signal is lost? Will the vehicle be able to move ahead and reach its destination? Malgorzata Wiklinska, manager of ZF Denkfabrik, thinks that infrastructure upgrades will alleviate any problems caused by the loss of wireless connectivity. She said that roadside units could be added to communicate with nearby vehicles, providing invaluable information about the environment. “We talk about infrastructure and adding, as a redundant system, roadside units,” said Wiklinska. “Roadside units will work on 5G but also on Wi-Fi and on ETSI-G5, a standard that was developed by a group of OEMs and Tier 1s a few years ago.” Wiklinska added that by improving the infrastructure (and, in essence, creating smarter cities), driverless cars should be able to function when the cloud isn’t accessible.

That may not be the only solution, however. Automakers are still trying to figure out how far they can push their vehicles without connectivity. Navya, a startup that has already built and deployed an autonomous shuttle, has primarily focused on developing vehicles that can operate without a 5G connection. “There are a bunch of technologies out there where cars can communicate with one another,” said Andy Rogers, VP of marketing and sales at Navya. “The question is, what data gets shared? And then [you have to] make sure that everybody’s got it. If only some cars have it and others don’t, then you can’t rely on it 100%.”

While the best features might be years away from release, automakers are currently using connectivity to enhance the driver experience. American Honda Motor, Co. recently announced that it is partnering with AT&T to connect Honda drivers using 4G LTE and Wi-Fi. The deal includes simple features like streaming audio and remote lock/unlock, but it could pave the way for more advanced connectivity options down the line.

If and when that day comes, automotive consultant Karl Heimer hopes the wireless connections don’t become as congested as the world’s most crowded roads. “As somebody that has worked with dense transmission systems, one of the concerns [I have] is interference,” said Heimer. “I would hope that we wouldn’t want to transmit at the rates we’re talking about over 802.11p because we’ll end up having some significant interference in heavy traffic areas.”

About the author:

Louis Bedigian is an experienced journalist and contributor to various automotive trade publications. He is a dynamic writer, editor and communications specialist with expertise in the areas of journalism, promotional copy, PR, research and social networking.

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