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Smart Cars: Enabling the future of the automobile

Google are testing them. Apple are rumoured to be building them. Tesla claim they have them (well, sort of). The public is excited by them.

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12 August 2016

The dawn of the smart car is upon us, and companies are spending billions working feverously to be the first to market with commercially viable self-driving cars (known as “autonomous vehicles” within the industry).

The promise of a car that can safely and securely drive itself while passengers relax in comfort and do whatever they like during the trip is capturing the public’s imagination, a scene straight from The Jetsons cartoon TV series of the 1960s.

Smart cars are considered part of an even bigger futuristic ecosystem boldly called the “Internet of Things” or “IoT” for short (propeller heads love three-letter acronyms, or “TLAs”!). Picture a world where everything we own is connected to everything else via the Internet, and can provide an autonomous existence where machines tell us what we want, based on their deep personalised understanding of us.

Imagine your fridge telling your car it needs milk, and your car “decides” to drive from the parking lot to the nearest 7-Eleven, collect the milk, pay for it automatically through its own internal payment gateway, then drive back to pick you up in front of your office as soon as you walk out the door. The fastest route to the 7-Eleven is calculated, with live traffic flow data and traffic light changes mapped out, and the estimated duration from start to finish already known before the engine turns on.

Now back to reality. I don’t expect self-driving cars to become common-place for at least another 10 or 20 years. So what does the roadmap (pardon the pun) look like for the self-driving car?

I believe there are four key enablers which need to be in place before the hype can genuinely materialise.

Firstly, “always on” connectivity is an absolute necessity. Specifically, we will need 5G technology to ensure connectivity becomes truly ubiquitous. Access anywhere, anytime connectivity (including Internet access) is required for a fairly basic reason: cars will need to talk to each other and the infrastructure around them in order to work as part of a single harmonious ecosystem. The current 4G has limitations which 5G should resolve, including: increased concurrent connectivity across mobile towers (imagine how many IoT devices will be concurrently connected to the Internet and need real-time access!); increased data transmission speeds; greater coverage areas etc.

The benefits of “vehicle to vehicle/infrastructure” (or “V2X”) communications are obvious: never get caught at a traffic light; always be directed via the quickest route to your desired destination; and communicate with other vehicles around you to ensure there are no collision.

Secondly, legislation needs to be passed which acknowledges the self-driving car and its place in our society. Imagine a hundred years ago, when a loud, shiny new thing called an automobile started tearing up the roads with horse and carriages. Governments had to create agencies to deal with this revolution, establishing entities like a Road Traffic Authority, regulating licensing of both drivers and vehicles, enacting laws to protect citizens and drivers/owners etc, implementing laws to govern how automobiles were to be used (eg. drink-driving restrictions, speed limits, accident reporting processes etc). In addition, new industries were established to provide supporting services to the automobile, such as car insurance, accident cover, personal injury insurance etc. The issue of the day one hundred years ago would be similar to what our legislators will need to deal with in order to “legitimise” self-driving cars today.

Thirdly, security needs to be 100 per cent bullet-proof. Imagine a situation where a hacker takes control of a self-driving car and makes it drive into oncoming traffic – it would be a complete nightmare. Automakers can be as diligent as they like when it comes to static vehicle safety such as airbags and crash zones, but unauthorised access to their vehicle’s internal computers could spell disaster for not only the passenger(s), but also significantly damage the entire self-driving car movement.

Finally, customer database information and in-vehicle real-time data analytics will be needed to provide value-added services for passengers. What will we do during our one hour commute to and from work when we aren’t driving the car? Chasing Pokemon’s might fill up some time, but the reality is we will need access to content and connectivity to keep ourselves occupied whilst we’re zipping to our destination. Knowing the passenger and what their interests are will help provide customised infotainment experiences beyond the usual six-button pre-sets we currently have on our stereo systems. By knowing our interests, habits, and beliefs, self-driving car infotainment systems will be able to provide us with curated content and services we want, personalised for us. The more our cars know about us, them better services they can provide.

For example, if our cars know we like a coffee in the mornings, they could recommend drive-through to a 7-Eleven to collect a coffee and a muffin on our way to work. The cars could notify the store of our pending arrival, and the store owner can have the products ready for collection without having to wait in line. Payments can be made through our online payment gateway tied to our vehicles or mobile handsets (we may need both to be geo-linked to the same location).

Convergence of technologies will ultimately shape the future of the self-driving car. Artificial intelligence, augmented reality, gamification, heads-up displays, enhanced voice recognition technology and secure payment gateways are just some of the technologies which will evolve into standard offerings for every new car of the future. However, none of these will be possible unless the enablers are in place.

Above all else, there is one single reason why self-driving cars won’t happen quickly: “FOD” (or the “Fear of Death”).

Safety and driver distraction are two of the most fundamental and powerful motivators in every automaker’s DNA, and historically have been considered the biggest constraints to accelerated automotive innovation. Make no mistake; automakers do not want to risk their brand or reputation on releasing autonomous “death traps”. If automakers are prepared to spend years perfecting an MP3 player integration into your infotainment system, you can imagine how much time they would invest to ensure you and your loved ones remain safe using their autonomous vehicle!

Self-driving cars should therefore not be rushed. We should leave it to the experts to work through the challenges under “controlled” conditions to ensure that, when it finally arrives, the finished product is safe and secure and actually enriches our lives.

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