A quarter of a century ago, the First Era of the Connected Vehicle was kicked-off by the former CEO of General Motors, Rick Wagoner, at the 1996 Chicago Auto Show. “Project Beacon” was eventually renamed to OnStar and was enabled by in-vehicle sensors, live advisors and multiple intelligent algorithms. However, the connection itself wasn’t all that intelligent; only a conduit for the information flow between vehicles and operation centers. Point to point. And for nearly all that time, the prevailing solutions were either in-vehicle calculations (“edge computing”), parent-child solutions (“cloud computing”) or some combination thereof (“hybrid computing”). The vehicle talked to the server and the major-yet-limited roles of the connection company were solely to ”make sure there’s cellular coverage wherever cars go and make sure it’s a strong enough signal.”
But now we are quietly ushering in the Second Era of the Connected Vehicle.
“We were one of the original partners for OnStar,” states Verizon Senior Vice President of IoT and Automotive, T.J. Fox. “And at the time, it was pretty revolutionary to be able to push a button and say, ‘My tire is flat. Please come and assist.’ But I would say over the past 3-4 years, the technology development and testing … is changing rapidly. The connectivity is going to enable things that, quite frankly, we never could have imagined. Your vehicle – be it a commercial truck or the car in your driveway – will be the ultimate, mobile device.”
How The Second Era Is Different
The major difference shall be the multipoint-to-multipoint communication, which can either be characterized as local networks, broadcast networks or some combination thereof. Vehicle to Everything (V2X). Such systems will allow low-latency, local awareness, which is the underpinning of many applications, especially safety-related ones. For instance, if a truck slams on its brakes, all vehicles in the area could be alerted. Or approaching vehicles can be notified of a soon-to-be-changing traffic light. Or a broadcast alert could be communicated if fully-loaded truck calculates it cannot stop in time.
Arguably, the inception of such technologies almost perfectly overlapped the entire First Era, e.g., seven manufacturers were researching Dedicated Short-Range Communication (DSRC) with governments on three continents only a few short years after the first cellular-enabled Cadillacs rolled off the production line. And, yes, industry rags have foretold vehicle-to-vehicle tech for decades while some very valuable vehicle-to-vehicle communications research was being done. However, most of the global infrastructure never arrived due to either governmental funding or coordination issues (e.g., imagine launching all 50 states and 19,519 municipalities in the United States at the same time with integrated solutions amongst a dozen competitors) and, therein, the manufacturers’ products were significantly delayed. And even then, the user-facing features were usually limited to applications such as wireless tolling.
In this Second Era, though, the infrastructure has already been launched: 5G. Per 5Gradar.com, the revised towers will “… bring ultrafast speeds, greater capacity, and ultra-low latency – characteristics that will allow mobile networks to offer connectivity reliable enough to support critical applications for the first time.” Certainly in the United States there have been delays due to battles between Congress, the FCC and the FAA about possible airport interference, but rollouts will continue in January given previous, intelligent deployments near airfields without issue.
“5G brings scale,” tells Fox. “Previous technologies were either proprietary, limited and not very dynamic. Our nationwide 5G network and the mid-band spectrum that’s being deployed in Q1  where a lot of the edge compute will happen will provide the scale and a tremendous platform for new applications.”
The Changing Roles of The Connection Company Itself
These changes to the network within the localities will empower multiple, new roles that communications companies like Verizon can play with likely three of them standing out as critical in the coming years:
For those unfamiliar with the vast data dictionary of a vehicle, it might seem incredulous that two cars built by the same manufacturer speak a different language. Different modules, different suppliers, different development teams. Now multiply that by 15-20 manufacturers. And the evolution over the 10-15 years a vehicle lives. Getting all digital communicators to speak the same, operable language requires a central integrator, which by definition needs to be a 3rd party since manufacturers will want to drive their proprietary solutions. As said well by The Hindu BusinessLine, “One day, cities and highways could be full of self-driving vehicles, all talking directly with one another to coordinate traffic and prevent accidents [but] they all need to speak the same language …”
If there’s quasi-edge computing happening at the tower or intersection, there can be a greater aggregation of data that’s not specific to a brand but rather the intersection. For instance, has black ice been recognized at that junction based upon multiple traction control events and, if so, in what lane? Is an emergency vehicle approaching and what directions should local vehicles be given to permit a low-impedance path?
“You cannot have a super-computer in the trunk,” explains Fox. “But you certainly can move a lot of compute power close to the vehicle in a low-latency environment near the vehicle. This is where you can have massive data – back and forth – in sub-10 milliseconds or a blink of an eye to inform the vehicle, alert the driver or take action by itself. It’s impressive.”
In fact, Verizon, Nissan and the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA) announced back in October a successful collaboration for advanced development of roadway safety. The research focused on testing a variety of vehicle-based and infrastructure-based sensor configurations to produce a comprehensive picture of potential safety hazards beyond vehicle and driver’s line-of-sight.
With new regulations like the cybersecurity certifications required by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) in places around the world starting in six months, the automotive manufacturers will need to quickly understand the how’s and what’s of software upgrades, configuration management and long-term software security controls. The connection companies not only have a rich history of updating handheld devices, but also can help to establish efficient methods of installing and tracking the updated software.
“We’re at an inflection point,” says Fox. “As the CEO of [a large US manufacturer] told me, ‘We want an always-on, connected vehicle where we’re communicating with that vehicle, understanding what’s happening in that vehicle and we’re updating that vehicle every day, every week and every month to make it better, faster and safer.’ 5G is the way that that’s going to happen, and all of this is going to change the world.”
In the end, the Second Era of Connected Vehicles will be, as Fox put it, “…more relevant tomorrow than it was when you bought it” and the connection companies are likely to play at least one new role.