In early 2016, wireless operators in the US were activating more connected cars than phones; and in the UK, two out of three cars sold by 2022 will have some sort of connectivity – a market estimated at roughly £120 billion (€134.97 billion).
Given the rise in internet connected in-car technologies along with strong consumer interest in posting, accessing and streaming content reliably while on the move, operators should be actively building out their 4G networks with a strong focus on motorways and major roads; and they should be planning for their future 5G networks as the connected car progresses towards Level 5 – full automation, says Paul Carter, CEO, Global Wireless Solutions (GWS).
Most major car manufacturers have been working on their connected cars; several interesting connected concepts were introduced by Renault, Audi and Volkswagen at the Frankfurt Motor Show, and Toyota and Mazda have recently announced a joint venture to build connected cars. The EU is also in on the game as it introduced regulation that meant all new cars must have some sort of emergency call function built in, as of April 2018.
Fast connections on the move
However, in-car services are nothing without connectivity but tests by GWS show there is a long way to go regarding ubiquitous access to 4G, even on major routes. For example, we conducted a test of 4G network connectivity on ten UK motorways; the results showed great variation in the availability of a 4G connection.
Depending on the operator, our devices were served by a 4G network on average between 30% and 84% of the time. Most of the ‘gaps’ where filled by 3G networks, but in the not too distant future 3G connectivity will not be enough to support connected car functions.
Operators know this and are working towards an all LTE-based network. Vodafone, for example, has a lot at stake since it was announced as the operator behind Vauxhall’s OnStar ‘personal onboard assistant’ – a product that includes 4G-enabled Wi-Fi. Further, consumers are showing an overall interest in on-the-road connectivity.
GWS also conducted consumer research and found that the most popular future technology people want to see in their cars is indeed Wi-Fi. As new car sales have fallen 5% year on year, wireless technology is becoming a main differentiator in the marketplace.
Consumers want more in-car services
Consumers’ demand for internet services while on the move is likely to rise even more over the coming years. Ford has begun selling cars with Amazon’s Alexa personal assistant built in; meanwhile Google demonstrated its updated in-car Android OS again at its I/O conference this year, allowing manufacturers like Audi and Volvo to apply their own skin over Android 8.0.
Much media and consumer attention is focused on the big tech names and the opportunities available; operators should view these advances as positive reinforcement in their 4G investments and readying themselves ultimately for 5G networks. Consumers soon will expect to seamlessly access on-line services in their vehicles at all times; in other words, the demand is there so mobile networks need to support it in the near future.
Where will the road lead us to?
The improvements in in-car entertainment have shown that consumer interest in in-car technology is high, particularly when it comes to autonomous driving. However, this is the application which will require the most data to be transmitted wirelessly. Manufacturers like Tesla and Mercedes offer self-driving features that are somewhere between level 2 and level 3 systems (where drivers must still pay attention to the road in case the system makes a mistake).
As self-driving systems become more sophisticated, cars will begin to communicate with each other, likely over car-to-car wireless networks, and all the information collected by vehicles on the road will be shared and analysed in the cloud. Currently Tesla’s vehicles use 4G networks to send over-the-air software updates, however in the future, the promised gigabit throughputs and sub 1 millisecond latency of 5G will become a critical feature within the mesh of different technologies that enable driverless cars.
While prototype systems and technologies for connected and autonomous cars are being developed quickly, the business case for the enabling 4G and especially 5G networks rather less so. There are many key building blocks that need to be in place before cars can zoom down the motorway without human drivers, including insurance considerations, manufacturing and product development, advances in wireless and public infrastructure and more.
It will happen: technology and innovation are making it easier for everyone to envision a connected car future and demand is there from consumers, which in turn helps strengthen the financial case for investment.
The author of this blog is Paul Carter, CEO, Global Wireless Solutions (GWS)