Connected vehicles: The long and winding road

The automotive industry’s goal was for every new vehicle to be connected by 2022. Now, less than 18 months out, things are more or less on track. But on track for what?

M2M vehicle connectivity is already widely available.  This enables a vehicle to be connected to an app on a smartphone that provides basic operations. These might include showing where you’ve parked, pinging your phone if the alarm is triggered or, in some of the more advanced M2M uses, the ability to control certain functions remotely – climate control, perhaps, or even the ability to start the car remotely.

In the context of the connected vehicle vision, such M2M connectivity is the starter option and the current business model provides an initial ‘free’ period, typically three years, after which the manufacturer’s annual charges apply. Early indications suggest that few users continue with the subscription after the ‘free’ period expires. This perhaps indicates that the benefit v cost equation isn’t seen as viable by consumers.

Further levels of M2M connectivity can be provided by the vehicle manufacturer to gather long term vehicle performance data, advise when servicing is required and other vehicle related information.

Another level of M2M connectivity appeals more to fleet managers and connects vehicle data and telemetry to a central hub to track and monitor usage, location, speed and other parameters. This has potentially more widespread use in the corporate world.

Mobile broadband may also be provided as an additional connectivity option to provide entertainment services – possibly also including an in-vehicle Wi-Fi access point to allow passengers to connect their devices.

Further connectivity comes into play when V2X (or vehicle to anything) technology is installed. V2X means that vehicles are able to communicate with the broader digital infrastructure, other vehicles, people, bikes and smartphones. V2X use cases are varied –V2V (vehicle to vehicle) can be used to warn vehicles behind of sudden braking or of poor weather conditions or visibility. V2X is generally seen as safety critical, requiring very low latency and high availability.

The Volkswagen Mk VIII Golf recently launched includes V2X connectivity as standard – called Car2X by Volkswagen. Right now, however, Mk VIII owners will find that functionality is constrained by the limitations of the surrounding infrastructure it is trying to connect to. Volkswagen has opted to take a punt on the future – making technology choices in the hope that, when the V2X eco system catches up, the Golf will be ahead of the game.

And it will be… as long as VW have picked the right standard.

Much like the fierce but short-lived battle between VHS and BetaMax in the 1980s, there are two standards for car connectivity – ITS-G5 (also known as Wi-fi 802.11p) and Cellular V-X (C-V2X) with 4G and 5G V2X variants. And of course, they don’t talk to each other. Not yet, anyway.

VW has picked the former, along with a group of other manufacturers, but other groups appear to be favouring the C-V2X standard.

There are ideas as to how to bring the two standards together, but this will take time and require joined up thinking from the many different stakeholders. But who’s in charge? In the UK, for example, will that be DCMS? The Department for Transport? The Highways Agency? Or will a separate body emerge? Or will it come down to local authorities, councils and road operators? Right now, no single authority or body has a remit that includes regulation and control of connected vehicle technology and the associated V2X infrastructure. And this seems to be much the same globally.

It seems likely that for a while at least connectivity will be delivered via two different standards and the big question is whether manufacturers will work towards some level of interoperability or will they be mutually exclusive. If the latter occurs, then manufacturers will probably have to install both V2X technologies, which adds to the vehicle cost and therefore price paid by the consumer.

And, as we saw in the early days of cellular, while all cars in one country may be aligned on their standards, the moment you take your car to another country, you may risk losing the connectivity functions, unless there is a work around.

The bottom line is that there is a lot of uncertainty that needs addressing in vehicle connectivity – and fast. New car platform development is continuing at pace, but without solid guidance on standards, many manufacturers could face designing their systems twice, or initiating costly recalls to update modules if regulations and/or standards move in the wrong direction.

With lots of questions, there’s clearly lots of work to be done in assessing the impacts and benefits of all the different variables. What’s clear is that the automotive industry and its stakeholders need to heed the lessons on the wireless sector and collaborate a little more right now in order to compete and differentiate more effectively in the future. This means championing interoperability and global standards, and avoiding fragmentation.

It also means those players with most to lose if V2X remains niche rather than mainstream taking a leadership role, so that national and municipal authorities don’t feel they need to become involved in decisions that they may not be best placed to make.

It’s clear that the road ahead is both long and potentially hard to navigate. There may also be a few bumps along the way.  In the UK, a Government department needs to take responsibility for setting the standards that will work for the UK, bearing in mind of course that our car manufactures export all over the world. Real Wireless can assess & evaluate the options available and advise which standard would be best to adopt to suit the UK needs in this critical area.