How are connected cars moving out of the lab and onto the highway?

Today it might seem that “self-driving” cars are just around the corner, with companies such as Google, Uber and Apple investing billions in developing cars that can safely drive passengers without human intervention.

But despite this promising early work, the truth of the matter is that we are still likely a decade or more away from seeing true self-driving cars with full driving automation capabilities commercialized.But despite this promising early work, the truth of the matter is that we are still likely a decade or more away from seeing true self-driving cars with full driving automation capabilities commercialized. 

See also: New study shows just a few driverless cars can ease traffic

The technology still needs to develop, and the regulatory environment for self-driving cars needs to be built from the ground up. If you are expecting to soon have a self-driving car take you home after a night out, to the airport for a business trip, or to grandma’s house for the holidays, don’t hold your breath.

However, unlike the self-driving car, the connected car has moved out of the lab and onto our roads and highways. In 2015, auto manufacturers delivered approximately ten million vehicles – approximately 10% of all new vehicles – with embedded connectivity. This figure is expected to increase to 30% of 100 million new cars by 2020, and by 2025, all cars sold in developed markets will include an embedded telematics solution.

This increase in the delivery of connected cars is being driven by the significant benefits connected cars offer to car owners, including improved safety, security, navigation, infotainment and maintenance services, as well as new types of insurance and electric vehicle-specific services. 

In addition, connected car services have the potential to transform the relationship between automakers and drivers, from one characterized by a one-off transaction to a much stronger relationship characterized by on-going engagement. Given these benefits to drivers and automobile manufacturers alike, why have we not seen a stronger automobile manufacturer push behind the connected car until recently?

The reason is that previously, automobile manufacturers seeking to produce connected cars faced several challenges – specifically support for evolving mobile networks, the ability to provide ubiquitous coverage, and the ability to cost-effectively scale connected car deployment.

Still many challenges

But new mobile and IoT technologies have enabled the challenges that need to be overcome, which is why we are now seeing a rapid uptick in automobile manufacturers’ roll-out of connected car platforms, such as Volkswagen’s Car-Net platform.

As far as the mobile networks needed to keep connected cars connected, they are always evolving – in fact, just as major mobile network operators have announced plans to roll out new 5G LTE networks over the next few years, many have also announced that they will shut down their 2G networks. If automobile manufacturers want their connected cars to deliver continuous, seamless service over the expected life of the car, they need connected car technologies that can support changes to mobile networks over time. 

However, new LTE technologies – such as 5G LTE — enable new mobile networks to be backward compatible. So, as long as automobile manufacturers deploy solutions based on LTE, they will be able to manage any network transitions that occur over at least the next ten years.

In addition to supporting current and future network changes, automobile manufacturers need to ensure that they can provide drivers with connected car services that are ubiquitous – drivers will not tolerate services that are not available nearly everywhere they drive. For this to occur, connected cars have to be able to be able to always maintain their connection to a mobile network service provider. 

To do this, automobile manufacturers need to be able to support all available mobile technologies and frequency bands in a given region and certify with the region’s various network operators responsible for cellular coverage in those markets. In the past, it was difficult to find technologies that offered these capabilities. 

Today, manufacturers can secure connected car networking technologies that can support all bands in a given region and are certified to meet multiple operator agreements. In fact, connected car platform providers can now even provide manufacturers with platforms that are able to switch to the best available network. With these new technologies, connected cars can easily switch networks, providing drivers with not only ubiquitous coverage, but the best possible connection available in a given region.

Of course, in addition to delivering a connected car that supports network evolution and offers ubiquitous availability, automobile manufacturers needed to be able to add connected car capabilities without dramatically increasing the price of their cars. This was difficult in the past, as automobile manufacturers had to integrate processors, modems, and memory from a multitude of suppliers if they wanted to build a powerful connected car platform. Moreover, applications built for such custom platforms would need to be reconfigured to be used on other platforms.

Disrupting at century-old business model

All these issues raised the costs and risks associated with deploying powerful connected car platforms, slowing their commercialization. However, with the rise of the IoT, automobile manufacturers can secure affordable turn-key connected car platforms with open-source OS and application frameworks that make it easy to support applications built for other platforms. Such turn-key, open-source platforms have enabled automobile manufacturers to cost-effectively deploy more powerful connected car platforms.

These new connected car platforms, along with support for mobile network evolution and the ability to provide ubiquitous availability, have enabled automobile manufacturers to break through the barriers that previously slowed them from commercializing connected cars. With these obstacles overcome, we are now seeing more connected cars rolled out, and the beginning of a change in the way automobile owners view both driving and their relationship with their car’s manufacturer.

Finally, while the connected car constitutes a major disruption to the automobile industry by itself, it is also helping accelerate the development of the technology and knowledge needed for the next big disruption in the industry – self-driving cars. For example, connected car technologies will enable self-driving cars to communicate with driving infrastructure and other cars, and improve their navigation capabilities, making them safer and more efficient.

It might not be soon, but a self-driving car future is coming, and the connected car will help us pave the way there.

The author is Director of Marketing, Automotive at Sierra Wireless.

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