European connected car arm wrestle swings in favour of 5G

The Byzantine European bureaucracy is trying to pick a winner between competing connected car technologies and inevitably it’s taking ages.

Back in March we reported on the GSMA’s hissy-fit after the European announced a preference for the wifi-based Cooperative Intelligent Transport Systems (C-ITS) approach to wireless networking between cars and the rest of the world. The mobile industry understandably prefers 5G-based cellular vehicle to whatever (C-V2X) technology and thinks the EC is barking up the wrong tree.

One of the few advantages of having such a bloated, multi-layered approach to running things is that every decision made by Europe has to be approved by countless parliaments, councils, committees and cabals. After a few months it was the turn of yet another of these to mull the matter over and it announced its decision this morning.

The Committee of the Permanent Representatives of the Governments of the Member States to the European Union is so morbidly obese they had to split it in two and it was the duty of Coreper II to make a call on the ‘delegated act’, which is what the word of the EC gets packed up us for consumption by lesser bodies.

While there had been considerable lobbying in favour of C-V2X in the build up to the decision, it still came as a pleasant surprise to see Coreper II dare to stand up for the Commission and reject the wifi C-ITS plan. A consortium of mobile industry lobbying bodies – GSMA, GSA, ETNO and 5GAA had written at length last month about what a bad idea excluding cellular from the continent’s connected cars would be and they seem to have been rewarded.

“GSA, along with other leading mobile and automotive industry associations, believe the Cooperative Intelligent Transport Systems  (C-ITS) ecosystem should neither be limited by technology nor place Europe and mobile and automotive companies at a clear disadvantage to other regions of the world,” said Joe Barrett, President of GSA.

“The decision by EU Member States to reject the Delegated Act on C-ITS and request the European Commission to reconsider its scope is great news for technology neutrality and signals a positive future for connected intelligent transport systems in Europe.”

The European Commission does allow light dissent every now and then, to maintain the illusion of accountability and due process. Normal procedure when something like this happens is for the EC to make cosmetic tweaks and keep putting the matter back to the vote until it gets what it wants. On such a binary matter of whether or not to back wifi-based C-ITS, however, it’s hard to see how such a fudge will be possible, so maybe this will end up being a rare defeat for the unelected Commission.

O2 looks to the stars to fuel CAV connectivity

O2 has launched a new project with the European Space Agency to address the notable strain which will be placed on networks with the introduction of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs).

While there has been a nod to the potential pitfalls of providing connectivity for CAVs, it hasn’t received a significant amount of attention to date. O2 claims it has done research on the segment, and wide-scale adoption of CAVs could generate up to 4 TB of data an hour. This would certainly place a strain on urban networks, but the usecases don’t end at the city limits; the strain placed on rural networks might be too much of a burden.

Code-named ‘Project Darwin’, O2 and the European Space Agency will work with Spanish satellite operator Hispasat, as well as various universities and vertical start-ups, to create connectivity solutions combining 5G and satellite communications.

“Project Darwin is an important piece of the connected and autonomous vehicle puzzle,” said Derek McManus of O2. “The research taking place at Harwell during the next four years will be vital in the creation of new transport ecosystems for the UK public and the companies that will offer these services.”

“Autonomous vehicles need robust, high-speed mobile data connections to operate effectively,” said Catherine Mealing-Jones, Director of Growth at the UK Space Agency. “Building the technology to link them to telecoms satellites will allow you to take your car wherever you want to go, and not just to areas with a strong mobile signal.”

This is one of the questions which the telco seems very keen to avoid at the moment; what is being done to ensure 5G is not an ecosystem for the privileged? Or at least not for a longer period of time than is necessary.

Having just driven back to London from the South-west, your correspondent can confirm the patchy nature of 4G. Telcos and government will tell you this is an area which is constantly improving, but it isn’t although we were taking countryside backroads. The M4 is one of the most important and busiest arteries of the UK. Maybe we are expecting too much, but the number of times devices dropped off 4G coverage is not encouraging for these future usecases which depend on constant and reliable connectivity.

These are questions which are perhaps being addressed elsewhere but not directly in the UK. How quickly is the network growing? Are network densification strategies advancing as quickly as other nations who are driving towards the 5G promise?

Business Secretary Greg Clark has stated the UK has ambitions to lead in the CAVs segment, but to do this the right connectivity conditions need to be in place. It does not appear the network has been rolled out far or densified enough to meet the demands of this emerging segment, whenever it appears.

Satellite is often seen as the ugly duckling in the connectivity mix. It is often considered as an option for the developing nations, and largely overlooked for those who can afford to build connectivity closer to the ground. However, digital divides exist all around the world, albeit nowhere near as extreme or consequential as regions such as Africa. If there are ‘not spot’s, or even areas of weak/patchy signal, some 5G usecases are undermined. CAVs is one of them.

Attitudes towards satellite connectivity have been shifting over the last 12 months, and it does appear to be increasingly becoming an important ingredient in the connectivity recipe. The UK network is evolving and improving, but it is far from perfect; satellites look an asset which are becoming more of a necessity than back-up.

How long can Uber keep bleeding cash?

It is becoming increasingly popular to invest in money-bleeding technology giants in preparation of an inflection point in profits, but you have to wonder how long Uber will be able to hold on for.

Uber is a massive brand, an innovator and genuine disruptor to the status quo. There are few examples of a concept riding the wave of digital to create such a severe disturbance to the traditional world. And while Uber might be the biggest transportation brand in the digital era, it is haemorrhaging cash quarter-on-quarter. Other segments have demonstrated there will be an inflection point, the moment of glory horrendous losses are turned into monstrous profits, but that scenario might be a long-way off for Uber.

Looking at the quarterly results, revenues grew to $3.09 billion for the period, a 20% increase year-on-year, but net loss from operations was $1.03 billion. This is 116% more than it lost in the same period of 2018.

The losses are certainly starting to mount as well. In the final quarter of 2018, Uber reported a net loss of $865 million. In Q4, the loss was slightly worse at $939 million. In this period of 2018, the firm reported net loss of $478 million from operations.

In the digital economy, investors are seemingly happy to swallow negatives, Uber’s share price following the announcement of the financials is holding steady, though how long can the potential remain potential?

Encouraging these investors are companies like Amazon and Netflix. In both of these cases, the firm build a dominant position in the respective segments, scaled globally, attracted millions of customers and then turned attentions to profits. Uber might be able to do the same thing, it is following the same trends, though there are sceptical voices.

Some might suggest Uber will continue to be a loss-making company until autonomous vehicles emerge. The theory is sound, after all a company’s biggest overhead is staff. Uber will be able to free up billions once the technology is perfected, making it a very profitable company. However, it might be decades before autonomous vehicles are a realistic prospect on the streets.

The technology might not be far away, but there are so many other moving parts which need to be factored in. Firstly, will people trust handing control of vehicles to machines? Are regulations and legislation in place to facilitate the introduction of this technology? How long will it take parallel industries, such as insurance, to ready themselves? Is the infrastructure, both roads and mobile connectivity, ready for autonomous vehicles? Have safety concerns been appropriately addressed?

There are so many factors to consider, the progression of autonomous vehicles is much more than technology. It might be decades before self-driving cars hit the streets; can investors wait that long for the Uber inflection point?

There is also an interesting, and slightly nefarious, philosophical question to consider when it comes to programming the artificial intelligence component of the technology.

Let’s say a car is driving down the street, travelling at 20 mph when a child steps into the road. The child is within the braking distance of the car therefore it is physically impossible to stop the vehicle in time. There are three options for the AI to choose from:

  1. Continue driving forward and potentially kill the child
  2. Turn sharply left and potentially drive into pedestrians
  3. Turn sharply right and potentially drive into on-coming traffic

In each of these scenarios, there is the potential for a fatality. But here is the issue; the AI will have to make a ‘conscious’ choice, the outcome might mean death, and the software engineer will have to write the software deciding how the AI will react.

The reason why this is different to today’s driving condition is because a human reacts without thinking through the possible outcomes. We cannot assess the information fast enough and react with a logical action, but AI can.

This scenario is of course highly unlikely, sensors and cameras on street furniture might be able to warn the vehicle of the on-going hazard, but it is a possibility therefore the AI has to be programmed to decide. There is no right answer here, but the AI is flawed unless a decision on what course of action to take is made.

Some might suggest the option with the smallest percentage chance for a fatality should be taken, but the risk of a fatality is still there. Because the vehicle has made a decision, should someone be held accountable if someone dies as a result of the action? This is a very complicated area.

So, if autonomous vehicles are out of the question for years to come, Uber will have to think of other ways to make money.

Uber Eats is proving to be a profitable venture for the firm, while the management team has promised to cut back on promotions which might carve into profits. But will these side ventures compensate for the way the core business and R&D businesses are churning through cash. What is clear, Uber needs to stop bleeding cash in such a dramatic fashion or credibility with investors might start to run dry.

US autonomous truck trials go up a gear

The US Postal Service is trialling self-driving trucks between Texas and Arizona in partnership with autonomous vehicle specialist TuSimple.

The US has been ahead of the game when it comes to putting self-driving trucks on regular roads along with the rest of the traffic. This trial involves trucks that drive themselves but have someone sitting in the driver’s seat anyway, just in case, who presumably drinks endless cups of coffee.

The two week trial will, appropriately enough, mark a milestone in the development of autonomous vehicles if it’s successful. The parameters by which success will be measured aren’t clear but causing a massive pile-up would presumably constitute a failure.

While the eventual utopia of 100% autonomous vehicles is still a long way down the road, this sort of thing could extend the distances a truck can travel in one go without the driver requiring intravenous espresso, with this one covering 1,000 miles. The technology leans heavily on cameras, apparently, and we’re not aware of any mishaps but the thought of other drivers unwittingly sharing the road with these trial trucks is still a bit unsettling.

“It is exciting to think that before many people will ride in a robo-taxi, their mail and packages may be carried in a self-driving truck,” said Dr. Xiaodi Hou, Founder, President and Chief Technology Officer, TuSimple. “Performing for the USPS on this pilot in this particular commercial corridor gives us specific use cases to help us validate our system, and expedite the technological development and commercialization progress.”

We got in touch with the USPS and it gave us the following statement: The United States Postal Service is participating in an autonomous truck pilot program with TuSimple. The truck, with a safety engineer and driver on board, will make five round trips, between postal facilities in Arizona and Texas in late May.

“This pilot is just one of many ways the Postal Service is innovating and investing in its future.  We are conducting research and testing as part of our efforts to operate a future class of vehicles which will incorporate new technology to accommodate a diverse mail mix, enhance safety, improve service, reduce emissions, and produce operational savings.”

For many self-driving vehicles remain a disturbing prospect. While on one level technology can equip them with a greater range of tools and awareness of their immediate environment human drivers typically have at their disposal, there will always be the matter of judgment and decision-making. As trials of this sort of technology ramp up the first serious accident will be a test of how ready we are to embrace it.

Jaguar Land Rover takes a rewarding approach to the sharing economy

Jaguar Land Rover is testing out a new rewards scheme that will see drivers rewarded with cryptocurrency for sharing data.

Like many automotive companies around the world, Jaguar Land Rover has seemingly identified the future of the industry lies beyond purchasing a vehicle, and this is certainly an interesting approach. In return for sharing data with Jaguar Land Rover, such as traffic congestion or potholes, drivers will earn cryptocurrency.

“The connected car technologies we are developing will be transformative and truly turn your Jaguar or Land Rover into a third space, in addition to your home or office,” said Russell Vickers, Software Architect at Jaguar Land Rover.

“In the future an autonomous car could drive itself to a charging station, recharge and pay, while its owner could choose to participate in the sharing economy – earning rewards from sharing useful data such as warning other cars of traffic jams.”

Partnering with the IOTA Foundation, to make use of distributed ledger technologies, by sharing relevant driving information with either Jaguar Land Rover or a local authority, cryptocurrency will be deposited into the driver’s smart wallet. These rewards could be used for a variety of different things, such as paying for tolls, parking and electric charging.

The technology is currently being trialled at the new Jaguar Land Rover software engineering base in Shannon, Ireland, forming part of part of Jaguar Land Rover’s Destination Zero strategy which aims to achieve zero emissions, zero accidents and zero congestion. Like many manufacturing companies, Jaguar Land Rover is attempting to carve itself a slice of the increasingly profitable sharing economy.

O2 goes up a gear in the 5G race

O2 has announced it will switch-on its 5G network at Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire to fuel the testing of autonomous and connected vehicles.

As part of the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) AutoAir project, O2 and consulting engineering firm Atkins join the project to accelerate the development of 5G-enabled intelligent transport systems. The test will be on of O2’s first forays into the 5G world, with the rest of the network set to be turned on across 2019.

“5G will play a key role in how our country develops over the next few years,” said Brendan O’Reilly, O2’s CTO. “If implemented properly, 5G has the potential to drive economic growth, create jobs and enable a new host of technologies – including self-driving vehicles. That’s why we’re delighted to be supporting the trial activity at Millbrook, alongside ambitious partners who share our vision of building a truly Mobile Britain.”

With the UK recently crowned on of the worlds leading authorities on autonomous and connected vehicles in a recent report, a lot depends on the success of these projects to prove the hype. Future of Mobility Minister Jesse Norman has already promised autonomous vehicles will be on UK roads by 2021, so let’s hope this project is a success; no-one wants to see a politician with egg on their face.

“The AutoAir consortium is pleased to welcome O2 and Atkins the 2nd phase of the project”, said Paul Senior, CEO of Dense Air and Chief Strategy Officer of Airspan Networks, one of the founding members of the project.

“O2’s integration and commercialisation of the 5G network at Millbrook to support both public and private mobile use cases is a world first and will be a reference deployment for the UK mobile industry as it moves to support for 5G applications for Industry 4.0, large enterprise and Government.”

Using 2.3 GHz and 3.4 GHz spectrum, the test will aim to accelerate the adoption of connected and self-driving technology in the UK. Part of the test is aimed at improving road safety and helping traffic authorities to monitor and manage traffic flow. It also follows other trials to demonstrate seamless and efficient handoffs between different radio sites.

Earlier this year, McLaren, another partner in the consortium, lend one of its sports cars to the test. Driving around the track at 160 mph, the vehicle was able to receive and send data at 1 Gbps, while also sharing real-time UltraHD 4K video between a network of moving vehicles.

“This project will transform the way we design, maintain and operate on our future networks,” said Lizi Stewart, Managing Director, Transportation at Atkins. “Developing the first 5G neutral network in the UK will allow us to continue our drive for innovation and industry-changing initiatives for the transportation sector.”

While connected vehicles are certainly a prospect on the horizon, autonomous vehicles might be a distant dream. The technology might be progressing, but there is much more to such a revolutionary change in society than simply making a robot work. For O2, this will be of minor concern as the telcos strides towards the 5G finish line.

Brexit threatens UK’s pole position in autonomous vehicle race

The UK might be a world leader in connected and autonomous vehicles, but Brexit could throw out a few roadblocks and speedbumps.

According to a new report produced by Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) and Frost & Sullivan, the UK is one of, if not the, leading nation worldwide in the connected and autonomous vehicles segment. This position has been created through notable private and public investments, four test beds, three highway test sites and more than 80 R&D projects.

The UK also has digital infrastructure which enables the concept of autonomous vehicles, most notably reasonably high average 4G speeds, 77% geographical coverage and the highest percentage of roads which could theoretically be automated by 2030, one in five road miles. These figures are also backed up by friendly policies, most notably the world’s first insurance legislation for autonomous vehicles, which was introduced by Parliament in 2018.

All of these factors combined creates the most attractive market for connected and autonomous vehicle developers, according to the SMMT and Frost & Sullivan, though Brexit could throw all of this into chaos.

“The UK’s potential is clear,” said Mike Hawes, SMMT CEO. “We are ahead of many rival nations but to realise these benefits we must move fast. Brexit has undermined our global reputation for political stability and it continues to devour valuable time and investment. We need the deadlock broken with ‘no deal’ categorically ruled out and a future relationship agreed that reflects the integrated nature of our industry and delivers frictionless trade.”

While many are bored of Brexit now, changing the channel when the news shoots across to the Houses of Parliament, it is at a critical juncture. The decisions which are being made over the next few weeks will not only decide the future success of the UK as an economic power, but also how attractive it is as an investment destination for businesses around the world.

As it stands, a pondering, sluggish and seesawing political system does not encourage any business with policy certainty and consistency. The UK political and economic landscape is the laughing stock of the world and before too long this will hit hard with consequences.

However, the benefits of this industry are clear. The report suggests £62 billion could be added to the UK economy by 2030, if the country can ready itself appropriately. £25 billion could be realised through the value of time where consumers can make more use of the time spent in their vehicles, more efficient journeys lead to greater productivity and labour market flexibility could add £15 billion, while costs in insurance, running costs and parking could save £6 billion. New segments, such as electronics and data services could also contribute £18 billion.

“The UK already has the essential building blocks – forward thinking legislation, advanced technology infrastructure, a highly skilled labour force, and a tech savvy customer base – to spearhead CAV deployment over the next decade,” said Sarwant Singh, Senior Partner and Head of Mobility, Frost & Sullivan.

“However, it will require sustained and coordinated efforts by all key stakeholders, especially the government, to realise the significant annual economic benefits forecast for the UK from CAV deployment by 2030 and drive the vision of safe, convenient and accessible mobility for all.”

GSMA blasts EC over connected car tech choice

The battle for the soul of the European connected car industry has come down to G5 vs 5G and the European Commission has just picked a winner.

Today the EC adopted new rules around connected an automated mobility on EU roads that amounted to an endorsement of Cooperative Intelligent Transport Systems (C-ITS). On the surface this would appear to be quite a generic thing, but it seems to refer specifically to a set of technologies supported by ETSI, which include the ITS-G5 short-range wireless communications standard that uses 802.11p wifi rather than cellular.

“This decision gives vehicle manufacturers, road operators and others the long-awaited legal certainty needed to start large-scale deployment of C-ITS services across Europe, while remaining open to new technology and market developments,” said the European Commissioner for Mobility and Transport, Violeta Bulc. “It will significantly contribute to us achieving our ambitions on road safety and is an important stepping stone towards connected and automated mobility.”

Mobile trade association the GSMA isn’t so sure, however. In fact it reckons Europe is seriously missing a trick by going for this tech over cellular-based C-V2X, as you might expect. Not only that, but the GSMA reckons that by picking the wrong winner for connected vehicle tech, the EC is setting back the development of 5G on the whole.

“This piece of legislation relies on a biased view of technology and impedes innovation,” said Afke Schaart, VP & Head of Europe of the GSMA. “If the EU stays on this road, it will isolate itself further in the global 5G race and severely harm 5G investment in Europe.” Strong words Afke and we’re not sure accusing the EC of being biased is the best way to win it around, but you’re the lobbying expert so go for it.

The arcane matter of G5 vs 5G is a bit above our pay grade here at Telecoms.com, but a spot of light Googling reveals plenty of boffins have given it some thought. A couple of years ago this paper seemed to conclude the tech itself isn’t that important, but more recently NXP decided C-V2X is still a bit rubbish. It remains to be seen how binding this EC choice will be for the European automotive industry, but as the UK is continually reminded, the EU is not a big fan of challenges to its authority.

Drive.ai is on the road towards acquisition

One of the more interesting autonomous vehicle start-ups has reportedly hired investment bank Jefferies to search out a potential buyer for the firm recently valued at $200 million.

According to The Information (subscription required), the Texas-based, 100-person start-up is searching for a buyer, and while it operates in a relatively niche market in the long-run, it’s image recognition software could be a cunning purchase. It does also have the accolade as being one of the only autonomous driving services which is up and running, available to the general public.

The Drive.ai team has not confirmed the search as such, though a spokesperson has highlighted the team is always on the look-out for strategic partners.

For those who are looking to enter into the autonomous vehicles space, or bolster their capabilities, this could turn out to be a very shrew purchase. With a commercially viable business model and software which could be integrated into other aspects of the business, we suspect this might be a firm which will be of interest to numerous parties, especially with a reasonable low price tag.

Last year, the firm raised $77 million in equity financing, valuing the business at $200 million, though the final number would almost certainly be higher. Other autonomous vehicle start-ups have gone for more, while Aurora Innovation is set to receive $530 million in financing from the likes of Sequoia Capital and Amazon.

However, the limitations of the business model might worry some. Drive.ai is currently trialling autonomous vans, which drive along-specific routes, and can be hailed by potential customers through an app. It is one of the few services available to the general public, though it has no-where near the same footprint or monetization potential as autonomous taxis.

That said, the limited nature of this service might prove to be an advantage. Such is the dramatic change which would be required to ensure autonomous taxis can operate in today’s environments, these services will not emerge at scale for some time. Not only do you have to advance the technology side of these machines, but also make updates to infrastructure, regulations and safety principles, as well as considering the impact to the insurance world. The red-tape surrounding autonomous vehicles in parallel segments could significantly slow down progress.

The limited nature and controlled exposure of these vehicles could be an option many governments would consider giving the greenlight to in a much shorter time window. For the right company, this acquisition could prove to be a very shrewd acquisition.

HERE adds mobile operators to its monetisation map

The location and mapping service company HERE, in partnership with data analytics company Continual, launched two new data services, HERE Cellular Signals and HERE Traffic Analytics, aiming to increase its value for mobile operators in addition to the transport and autonomous car industries.

HERE Cellular Signals is generated by overlaying a radio map crowdsourced from its users on top of its in-house road map. The outcome of such a mesh will provide a snapshot of the network coverage, carrier presence, signal strength and bandwidth on a given road. HERE claims that there are 250 million connected devices out there with HERE user clients installed, and the radio data (including cellular and Wi-Fi traces as well as GPS coordinates) will be updated 800 million times a day, including 100 million times over cellular networks.

If the combined solution is proved robust enough, this can deliver benefits to mobile operators. In order to gather reliable data from live networks, mobile operators or its suppliers still need to send out engineers to do drive tests with car-mounted or hand-held measurement equipment. Such data are critical for network and RF planning and optimization, quality evaluations, and competitive assessments. HERE Cellular Signals will not completely replace such tests, but it can reduce the frequency and geographical coverage, and in turn reduce mobile operators’ operation costs.

When it comes to HERE’s home territory, i.e. transport and logistics industry of today and autonomous and self-driving cars of tomorrow, HERE Cellular Signals can help the fleets optimise their communication plans with the control centre based on the cellular network coverage and service plans on the routes. Connected vehicles need always-on connectivity to the cloud, to the road infrastructure and to other vehicles. A radio map like HERE Cellular Signals can therefore help connected car managers plan when to use online service and when to use offline service, or which roads to avoid so as to minimise the risk of dropped connection. This will be particularly critical when full auto-driving cars come to the roads which will demand end-to-end low-latency broadband connectivity, e.g. 5G.

“Bandwidth is a limited and expensive resource,” said Aaron Mayfield, Senior Product Manager at HERE Technologies. “As data traffic soars and new demands are placed on cellular networks, bandwidth optimization will increasingly become a delicate balancing act. HERE Cellular Signals is a valuable resource to add to the toolbox of cellular carriers to help manage these challenges.”

HERE Traffic Analytics, on the other hand, uses the data gathered from the roads to provide visibility into road traffic patterns.

Both of HERE’s new products are integrated in the Mobility Experience Analytics solution marketed by Continual, an Israeli user data analytics and AI company.

“As 5G networks and always-online automated vehicles edge closer to reality, we’re seeing growing convergence between the mobile telecom and automotive markets,” said Michiel Verberg, Senior Manager Strategic Partners at HERE Technologies. “We’re excited that Continual’s existing deep relationships with MNOs coupled with our established automotive partnerships will provide us with a unique opportunity to better address this important evolving market.”

HERE in its earlier life also had a legacy of working with mobile operators extensively. It was part of Nokia, which was acquired by the consortium of German car makers including Audi, BMW, and Mercedes, back in 2015.

“Continual’s Mobility Experience Analytics solution re-defines the approach that mobile operators and automotive companies can adopt towards monitoring and improving the connected experience of car drivers, passengers and subscribers who are traveling,” said Assaf Aloni, CMO of Continual. “HERE’s impressive portfolio of automotive and network technologies is very synergistic with ours, and the partnership is enabling us to create even stronger solutions for Connected Mobility.”

The two companies will demo the new services at the upcoming Mobile World Congress.