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Written by: Philip Mason | Published:

Philip Mason looks at two manufacturers aiming to capitalise on autonomous and connected cars years in advance of the large-scale roll-out of 5G

5G is becoming an incredibly hot topic, not just in the pages of industry magazines such as Land Mobile, but also, increasingly, here in the UK. (For proof of this – and for an in-depth look at the contribution the country’s universities are making to the global 5G reseach effort – check out page 12 of the magazine you currently hold in your hands).

There are myriad reasons for this, not least smart device users’ ever-more voracious appetite for data which, if and when it’s rolled out, 5G will undoubtedly deliver. There are also other, far more glamorous, use-cases as well, however, the most obvious (at this point, you might even say hackneyed) of which is ‘driverless’ cars.

For the few who don’t know, the expectation in relation to this strand of automation is that 5G’s anticipated massively high bandwidth, coupled with infinitesimally small levels of latency, will essentially allow vehicles to be operated remotely. This might be by humans, or – getting well and truly ahead of ourselves – artificial intelligence, which as it becomes more sophisticated could eventually be in a position to make critical driving decisions for itself in real time.

While this type of functionality is something which has already been demonstrated on a smaller scale (for instance by Telefónica and Ericsson at car manufacturer Idiada’s test track last year), the technology that will enable a large-scale roll-out is still clearly a long way off. At the same time, however, there is still plenty of impressive work taking place, enabled through the use of currently deployable technology.

A company at the centre of this is Magna International, which is one of the world’s largest suppliers of technology to the car industry.

Pre-prescribed route

In the summer of last year, Magna unveiled MAX4, a system which it referred to at the time as “a customisable and scalable, autonomous driving sensing and computing platform”. The solution – again, according to the company – is designed to demonstrate “autonomous driving capabilities”, fully integrated into “automakers’ existing and future platforms”.

There are six levels of autonomy relating to automobiles as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers, going from 0 to 5. The level at which MAX4 operates is 4, meaning it performs all safety-critical functions for the duration of a trip, in a specified ‘operational design domain,’ with no help from a driver, other than destination or navigation input.

The system’s first generation has been demonstrated through the use of a modified Jeep Grand Cherokee, which the company deployed in order to zoom selected passengers around the German capital of Berlin. The onboard system consisted of radar, LiDAR, stereoscopic camera, ultrasonic sensors, as well as the aforementioned onboard processing.

Going into more detail about the test, Magna vice-president, business development Ian Simmons says: “The vehicle is completely its own entity, operating independently without the need for a 5G connection. Currently – looking at MAX4 as an example – there’s actually no real need to have 5G, even if it was available. In terms of positioning and tracking, it works off of GPS.”

Elaborating on this theme, he continues: “The computer is onboard, the sensors are onboard, and the localisation is carried out via the use of those sensors. The areas in which the vehicle operates are typically pre-mapped, so a broadband connection is only really necessary for off-boarding data and comms.”

As reported in September of last year by motoring publication Roadshow, the Berlin experiment, while certainly encouraging, was not entirely successful in terms of the car being able to navigate busier areas of the city’s road system.

The roundabout circling the iconic Victory Column in the Tiergarten, for instance – with its multiple lanes and exits – proved a particular challenge. “Its hardware is up to the task,” said the (human) driver quoted in the article, who was charged with taking the wheel at trickier moments of the journey. “It now comes down to the software.”

Speaking of the next phase of the project, Simmons says: “MAX4 is primarily a demonstration of our capabilities; a way to show our understanding of the entire system. At the same time, we know each automaker has their own strategy and needs, and it’s likely they will ask us for portions of the overall system – for instance, our new business with BMW to provide LiDAR.

“We are well positioned in the sensor suite, as well as the processing piece of the puzzle. We believe fully autonomous driving vehicles are a long way out, but we are prepared for ADAS transition steps.”

Simmons also points out that there is some modifications to be made when it comes to sensor technology itself, particularly for coping with weather conditions such as fog and heavy rain.

In-car connectivity

As well as snatching control of the vehicle away from human beings, the other core area in which wireless comms is likely to transform the automotive industry is in-car connectivity.

This is something which is happening already, with MNOs such as Three and EE offering in-car broadband at costs comparable to packages available for individual smart devices. As automobile infrastructure becomes increasingly integrated into the Internet of Things, however, ever-more complicated questions are inevitably going to be asked around whether this kind of commercial broadband connection is sufficient.

Jacques Bonifay is CEO of Transatel, a European company that has positioned itself as providing what he calls a “turn-key solution” for organisations wanting to operate their own mobile virtual network. (“MVNO-enabler” is another rather nifty piece of jargon which he employs during our chat to describe what he sees as the company’s mission).

According to Bonifay, the company is currently operating in the IoT space in three sectors – industrial; connectivity in relation to portable devices; and the automotive industry. Burgeoning interest in the technology on the part of the latter has been recently illustrated by Transatel’s deal to provide Jaguar Land Rover with onboard connectivity for its vehicles, beginning in June.

“In the last four years, we’ve deployed a worldwide data mobile virtual network for the Internet of Things,” says Bonifay. “We essentially develop connectivity agreements, forming relationships with something like 100 MNOs across the globe.

“It’s classical 3G and 4G technology, with the core network based in France with auxiliary servers and routers in locations in the US and Asia. In terms of the car itself, we use a single, optimally positioned, secure SIM, and an external antenna.”

Discussing the initial business case around Transatel’s work in the automotive sector, he says: “The Jaguar Land Rover deal is predicated primarily around ‘infotainment’, which essentially means Wi-Fi on board, as well as connectivity around the car’s GPS functions and so on. The car will come with three years of connectivity for the buyer of the car as part of an overall package, with the billing managed via an app.”

As potentially game-changing as this is, at least in terms of the business model, for Bonifay things are likely to get truly interesting as car manufacturers increasingly start to promote their products in parallel with their capacity to take advantage of the Internet of Things.

According to him, this in turn will see the criteria for buying a car move away from price, brand and design towards the concept of what he refers to as “service”, something which he believes will ultimately account for around 30 per cent of the buying decision in the future.

“As car manufacturers increasingly take advantage of IoT technology – for instance, through the use of telematics, pay-as-you-go insurance and so on – it will be in their interest to retain as much control of their own connectivity as possible,” he says. “That’s where I believe we will truly come into our own, having essentially democratised mobile virtual networks for the automotive industry.”

As well as facilitating increased ‘control’, meanwhile, the other advantage which Bonifay believes his company has over the traditional MNOs in this context is the increased security associated with a discrete network.

“Our other main area of work is in relation to customer reassurance,” he says. “This is quite a conservative industry and it’s a massive concern for them, particularly given the ever-increasing number of different parameters that will need to be controlled.

“Take remote door opening as just one example – obviously, you don’t want someone to be able to open 50,000 luxury vehicles across London simultaneously. Do you think someone like BMW is going to trust a local MNO in an emerging country with security when there’s so much at stake?”

From manufacturing to fleet management

Of all the solutions we write about in Land Mobile, automated vehicles have arguably got the greatest potential to impact the way we live as a society. This could range from comparatively minor areas such how the insurance landscape will evolve with the shift away from humans toward AI, to the potentially catastrophic cost of a widespread security breach.

Just as pertinent, meanwhile, is how automated driving may change things at the level of culture itself. As Magna’s Simmons points out, for instance, there is already a move away from the notion of car ownership, particularly on the part of millennials, who apparently now simply just want to get from A to B with the minimum of fuss. (Although this may change again once they have children).

With this in mind, what happens if and when Uber goes fully automated? Will we see an end to the ‘manufacturing’ model altogether as the sector shifts gradually towards ‘fleet management’?

Keep reading Land Mobile for the latest insights on the long journey ahead.

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