Rob Orr, executive commercial & marketing director, Virgin Media Business says incremental change to the infrastructure we have is how to progress to autonomous vehicles.
We all want what autonomous vehicles promise, which was set out in the well-received Modern Industrial Strategy – a cleaner, safer, more productive, convenient and less stressful way to travel. But we’ve a long way to go to get there: for example, in 2018, the UK was one of the ten most gridlocked countries in the world according to the INRIX survey, which looked at traffic in 200 cities across 38 countries.
This translates to motorists in the UK spending 31 hours a year stuck in peak-time traffic, which costs the average driver £1,168 (€1361) per year in fuel and lost time, which highlights the urgent need to advance vehicle and smart technology to make the vision of autonomous travel a reality.
These advances include network innovations, wireless technology and effective power sources. As Deloitte’s Smart Cities report points out, this infrastructure “will be critical to cities aiming to become ‘smart’. However, this new ecosystem isn’t going to be realised through wholesale change, ripping out infrastructure entirely and starting over, but by small, often invisible adaptations coming together to formulate a new reality.
Extraordinary outcomes will be rooted in foundational, practical changes.
Building connections through network innovations
One of the most pressing demands will be evolving regional and telecoms networks to support the new generation of connected, electric, autonomous vehicles. Morgan Stanley expects the data generated by self-driving vehicles to consume more than half of wireless network capacity before 2050.
Clearly, the enormous amount of data required by the new connected car ecosystem will require new networking technology, demanding the intelligent use of limited bandwidth and ensuring that systems are fully protected from cyber-threats.
Also, we’re not going to reach a “static stage” where innovation just stops; rather, the ecosystem is going to be constantly evolving and creating new pressures on the underlying network. Scalability is a permanent need, representing a constant state of change.
To meet these evolving demands, networking technology is going to need to incorporate scalability, agility and security. Scalability and agility meaning a network that can increase in processing power and adjust to new innovations; and security meaning a solution that’s protected by powerful encryption.
Fortunately, there are already ways of achieving this; software-defined wide area networks (SD-WAN), for example, are a crucial innovation in network technology, which is driving massive changes in network performance and empowering technical managers to visualise and control bandwidth in real-time, quickly responding to change.
Fuelling the vehicles of the future
It’s not just about building a resilient and flexible network, though – it’s also about finding enough power sources for vehicles. Electric, autonomous vehicles are going to need energy, most likely provided by thousands of physical charging points. Given the finite space in most urban areas that seems a daunting, but not insurmountable task.
In fact, some tools are already there – it’s just a question of upgrading and incorporating them into an infrastructure fit for the 2020s and beyond.
Virgin Media alone already has 40,000 street cabinets for telecoms equipment across the UK. They cabinets can be converted, relatively easily, into units to support next-generation transport systems.
As they come with fixed networking technology, they’re suited to carrying huge amounts of data at the same time as enabling electric vehicle charging; they could become the intelligent mobility nodes critical to ensuring the smart transport ecosystem functions properly.
Promisingly, trials are already underway to assess how well the cabinets carry out this dual function: supplying energy and serving as information hubs and data offloading channels.
Another key part of the connected vehicle ecosystem will be the wireless technology used for vehicles to speak to one another. It’s important to remember that this is going to have a short range: high frequency signals can transmit huge amounts of data but don’t travel far, so data will need to be offloaded into fixed, core networks quickly to support all the new connected vehicles that will be on the street.
This means the backhaul portion of the network – the cables in the ground – is going to be vital to ensuring the enormous amounts of data can be adequately handled.
The new transport ecosystem is only an aspirational vision as yet, but providing the essential adaptations to cities’ infrastructure take place there’s no reason the promised transport revolution cannot take place, bringing benefits to businesses, government, commuters and other road users alike.
The author of this blog is Rob Orr, executive commercial & marketing director, Virgin Media Business