Mobile tech is fueling a revolution in the auto industry

By Harry Menear
The automotive sector is set to undergo a transformation every bit as dramatic as the telecom industry following the birth of the smartphone...

The global automotive sector is on the verge of its biggest transformation since the replacement horses with the internal combustion engine. As the world - in the face of soaring emissions - moves further away from fossil fuels, towards battery-powered electric vehicles, the fundamental nature of our cars is changing. At the same time, the revolutionary effects of Industry 4.0 - from the mass-adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) and the cloud, to the expanding IoT networks - is set to completely reshape the ways that cars interact with one another and the outside world. 

This digitalisation of the automotive industry means that cars today are more interconnected than ever before. According to a recent report by Allied Market Research, the global connected car market was worth US$63.03bn in 2019. By 2027, that figure is expected to exceed $255.1bn. 

It’s an exciting, yet precarious time for auto manufacturers. As vehicles increasingly become platforms for technology, connected to the internet, and even progress towards becoming driverless, the nature of the companies that design, make and sell these vehicles is set to change every bit as much as their products. 

“As car manufacturers wrestle with the fundamental challenges presented by technology innovation and the coming shift to battery-powered electric vehicles, there are compelling signs that the industry’s traditional business model is set to give way to a radical new approach,” writes Paul Warburton, VP of Automotive at Japanese ICT firm Fujitsu. Warburton believes that the proliferation of connected vehicles will change the course of history for the industry. For a clue as to where it’s headed, he suggests we look to another sector - one that’s in the process of colliding with automotive design and manufacturing. “As connected in-vehicle IT becomes increasingly key to car-buyers’ purchasing decisions, it’s time for vehicle manufacturers to think more like smartphone suppliers,” he explains. 

This month, Mobile World will be looking at the intersection of mobile technologies and the automotive industry, examining the role that AI, 5G and driverless vehicles are having on this rapidly changing space. 

Internal connectivity

The idea of the connected car has been around since 1996, when General Motors and Motorola launched OnStar as a way of reliably alerting roadside assistance when an airbag was deployed. It was simple, effective, and connected a car with an external entity. However, the definition of a connected car hasn’t remained so clear cut. 

As modern vehicles become increasingly digital, a connected car can contain dozens of intelligent systems that need to be connected to one another in a functional ecosystem just as much as they require a connection to the world beyond the vehicle. “There are more lines of software code in a modern car than in a commercial airplane – from pollution avoidance solutions, through comfort and safety features, to in-car entertainment and satellite navigation,” notes Warburton. 

Andreas Minatti, Head of Business Development, Business Unit Mobility, at Swiss auto parts manufacturer Datwyler, agrees. “As the automotive industry moves away from internal combustion engines to new electric and hybrid vehicles, creating seamless connectivity systems within those vehicles is becoming an important focus for manufacturers,” he told Mobile World in a recent Q&A. Minatti continues to note that smart sealing solutions can be a useful tool increasing connectivity throughout a connected car. “By using smart sealing solutions with sensors embedded, not only can we ensure the integrity of the seal, we can add the ability to monitor a wide range of activities within the vehicle,” he expands. “An integrated sensor could monitor or track functionality, for example, or other elements such as temperature, humidity or leakage - delivering data to the vehicle itself or to the manufacturer or driver.” 

5G and the Internet of Cars

“The benefits of 5G technology have seen the automotive and telecommunications industries come together to define the next generation of connected mobility solutions,” says Cyril Leman, Automotive Product Lead at HERE Technologies. “5G promises high speed, low latency and massive device connectivity, creating innovation opportunities for the automotive industry like new in-car services, enhanced safety and autonomous driving. Bridging hardware and software from the automotive industry with the connectivity and networking systems and devices from the telecommunications industry will create end-to-end solutions for intelligent transportation, mobility systems and smart cities. Location data will be key to all of this, empowered further by 5G.” 

We spoke with Leman further about the approaching convergence of mobile, 5G and automotive technology. He explained that he believes that the ability for 5G to connect cars to one another will result in improved safety, efficiency and transparency. This is particularly true as cities turn to smart digital solutions to manage everything from traffic congestion to emergency vehicle dispatches. According to a report by smart city IoT tech company Intechnology Smart Cities, “Emergency vehicles can have their driving routes optimised using Intelligent Traffic Systems (ITS) which adjust the ways traffic lights are phased, aiming to minimise red light delays,” with potentially life-saving results. By connecting every car on the road to a citywide ITS, the ability for cities to predict and manage traffic on a macro and micro level would be dramatically increased. Leman adds that “advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) enabled by 5G will allow for instant data transfers between connected cars to identify other vehicles in close proximity and even predict accidents before they happen.”  

However, even though the global 5G rollout continues apace, some experts contend that the world of the automobile will remain largely 4G for the foreseeable future. “5G is an expensive way to enable most IOT devices. The majority will likely continue to use cheaper, lower-bandwidth, shorter-range communications via BLE, zigbee, WiFi, 2G, etc,” explains Dr Ramsey Faragher.

Dr Faragher is the founder and CEO of FocalPoint and a Fellow of Queens' College, Cambridge, UK, where he teaches AI and machine learning, and was part of the design team for the ExoMars Martian Rover's "Seeker" visual navigation system. In the past few years, he has also been an instrumental consultant in the development of autonomous vehicles (AVs), working with Starship and Uber on their AV projects. He believes that there is one area where 5G will be the catalyst for a transformational leap forward. 

Spotlight: Nokia

Nokia has been leading the way in many areas of the global 5G rollout, partnering with companies in multiple industries and markets to develop their capabilities. “On a street in Espoo, near Helsinki, I found myself looking at a vision of the future. A car moved down the street, its only occupant not ‘driving’ but sitting back and enjoying the ride,” recalls Steve Davidson from the company’s field marketing team, reflecting on Nokia’s recent 5G-powered AV tests in Finland. In addition to its pioneering work uniting telco capabilities with the future of mobility, Nokia is also harnessing 5G to bring ultra-fast internet connectivity to connected cars, allowing passengers to “catch up on TV box sets or prepare for their meeting, as easily as if they were at home.”

Fully connected, fully autonomous?

The self-driving car has been a part of humanity’s imagination for almost a century now. Back in the 1920’s, these so-called “phantom autos” were remote-controlled by the tapping of a telegraph key. Now, a century later, AVs aren’t yet a common sight on our roads - unless you live in Phoenix, of course. However, Faragher believes that expanding 5G networks could be a big piece of the puzzle. 

After pointing out that most of the IoT will remain rooted in older generations of low bandwidth communication networks for the foreseeable future, he notes that “the exception to this will be unmanned autonomous vehicles or unmanned remotely-piloted vehicles utilising 5G to stream very large amounts of data in real time, or to provide low latency live remote teleoperation.” 

Unfortunately, he notes, while the growth of the edge, powered by the growing 5G networks being rolled out by telecom companies, there remains an “elephant in the room”: the issue of perception. 

“A human driver would never drive past a burning fuel tanker on its side next to the road spilling fluid across the road. An autonomous vehicle would drive past it, however, as it has absolutely no understanding of the concepts of fire, or petrol being flammable or the difference between an apparently empty road, and an open road in imminent danger of being at the epicentre of a massive explosion any moment,” Faragher explains. “Most countries set the age of holding a licence at around seventeen, not because you are only physically able to drive a car at that age, or understand that red means stop and green means go. The age is set so high because we want drivers to have a level of mental maturity and understanding of the world in general outside of the driving seat in order to be safe in all situations and able to interpret and react to any strange new situation thrown their way - like the first time you see an aircraft trying to perform an emergency landing on the same piece of tarmac you are currently aiming for. The biggest blocker to autonomous vehicles will be our readiness or reluctance to allow robot drivers on the road that never get drunk, never get tired, never get annoyed, but have a general level of understanding of the world that is equivalent to that of a toddler.” 

As AVs’ abilities to effectively process the world around them improves, however, the level of high-speed processing at the edge that 5G will enable is going to be an essential part of the technology’s development. 

In a report by Deutsche Telekom, it was noted that, during initial 5G tests on the A9 freeway between Nuremberg and Munich, latencies of less than 20 milliseconds were achieved. This means that an autonomous car driving at a speed of 100 km/h would only travel 60 centimeters in the time it takes to interact with its network and receive instructions. 

Currently, the report continues, “sensors are used to implement car-to-car communication for automated driving. This includes, for example, intelligent camera systems, which enable the direct exchange of data between the cars. These systems have crucial physical disadvantages, however. They can neither look around corners, nor over hills, nor through obstacles. This is why they restrict the functioning of self-driving cars. This simple form of automation is also unsuitable at higher speeds.” By contrast, 5G networks offer a huge potential improvement. Direct and ultra-low-latency broadband communication means that connected autonomous vehicles will have a much more comprehensive (and in many cases, faster) connection to their surrounding environment. 

Expert insight: Synopsys

"The smartphone has had a significant impact on our daily lives, and it is only the beginning. How we interact with our vehicles is quickly changing from a rite of passage to a natural extension of our environment with the rapid evolution of smartphones reflected in the automotive space. The need to rapidly adapt to consumer interests is fueling the need for dynamically updatable systems while maintaining the safety and security requirements demanded of manufacturers. These needs carry over to industries supporting automotive providers, the most notable being the need for high-speed services promised by 5G.

The level of testing and interoperability needed to provide consumers with a safe, secure and seamless experience is critical to progressing autonomous driving. Offerings like application stores, vehicle customization, self-parking and payment of unattended services will continue to drive the automotive space, just as we have seen in smartphones." - Chris Clark, Senior Manager of Embedded Ecosystems, Synopsys

Driving Innovation

Regardless of the pace of AV arrival and 5G adoption, the writing is undeniably on the wall. The automotive industry is on track for a once-in-a-lifetime evolutionary leap, and companies need to adapt to higher levels of technological saturation across the industry. “There will be an explosion of in-car functionality and features, just like in the mobile phone industry following the launch of Apple’s iPhone,” notes Warburton. “Therefore the dominant industry players in the car’s next century will be those that understand and embrace this shift early. This will require them to work with the right partners to build a global framework and infrastructure that ensures they’re successfully able to meet the differing demands and requirements of diverse markets and customers, while also supporting growth in a way that’s environmentally sustainable.” 


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