BBWF 2018: Autonomous cars are progressing, but still a lot of work to do

Predicting when self-driving cars will hit the streets is turning into a real-life version of roulette, which is always a worrying sign.

Last year, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond set out his bold ambitions; autonomous vehicles to be on UK streets by 2021. If you listen to those testing out the solutions across the world, this is certainly achievable. But then again, there are always the neigh-sayers.

At Broadband World Forum in Berlin, Alexandros Kaloxylos, Assistant Professor at University of the Peloponnese, was one of those who poured a little bit of water on the ambitious fires of progress. From Kaloxylos’ perspective, there is still a lot of work which needs to be done on developing network slicing for autonomous vehicles, and also on the roaming side of things as well.

Looking first at the network slicing, this is an important aspect of the technology as these are applications which are safety orientated. Cars can hurt people, which is why network slicing becomes paramount. Having a ‘dedicated network’ to facilitate the communications of these vehicles is an important step towards the realisation of this dream.

This in itself is a problem, as Kaloxylos pointed out the specific V2X (vehicle-to-everything) usecase for network slicing has not been discussed or examined closely enough. This is a different type of usecase and cannot be bundled together with the rest of the exciting applications. Remote surgery is another excellent example of a usecase which needs network slicing, but the operating theatre does not move, vehicles will, and they will very quickly. The industry has addressed this challenge yet.

The second challenge which was highlighted during the session is roaming. If an autonomous vehicle moves from Germany to Switzerland for instance, or from one network to another, will the handover be efficient? As it stands, this handover can take up to seven seconds. When 20 m/s latency has been targeted for the successful implementation of autonomous vehicles, this is clearly not good enough.

Some might be excited about autonomous vehicles, but it is worth getting a reality check every now and then.

Exeter and Leeds win National Infrastructure Commission prize

With the technology world dreaming of autonomous vehicles, everyone has to remember perfecting the technology is only part of the battle. The roads have to be updated as well.

This is a concept the National Infrastructure Commission has understood, and looked to address. The national Roads for the Future competition looks to address these very problems with a £50,000 prize fund to fuel new ideas. It might not be an astronomical figure, but the lessons learned will certainly be useful.

And the winners are… City Science based in Exeter and the Leeds City Council.

“The vehicles of tomorrow will be very different to those we see around us today. We need to make sure our roads are ready for this revolution,” said Chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission Sir John Armitt. “With such a strong shortlist narrowing down the entries was no easy task, but the ideas put forward by City Science and Leeds set them apart. I’ve been really pleased by the enthusiasm for our competition, and I hope it leads to ever-greater interest not just in the technology in the vehicles, but also in the roads they will travel on.”

In Exeter, City Science will examine how sections of roads in urban areas could initially be dedicated to driverless vehicles, as a key step in kick-starting their take-up and integrating them safely into the existing transport network. Over in Leeds, the council will investigate how the data generated from digitally connected cars could be used to improve traffic light sequencing, allowing highway authorities to better manage traffic on their roads and reduce tailbacks.

“Over the past three months, this project has given us the opportunity to explore the enormous potential of CAVs and set out a tangible vision to deliver their benefits on the UK’s roads.,” said Laurence Oakes-Ash, CEO of City Science. “It is essential that we get the rollout of CAVs right, using them in ways that can integrate with mass transit, promote healthy cities and create successful communities.”

“While digitally connected and autonomous vehicles are still a long way down the road, they have the potential to offer massive benefits in major cities like Leeds,” said Leeds City Council executive member for regeneration, transport and planning, Councillor Richard Lewis. “We look forward to continuing our work with all our partners and stakeholders to turn this innovation into reality.”

The other short-listed entries were how CAVs can be best deployed to beat congestion and improve the air quality (entry from Immense), Arup’s entry assessed the future management of the side of the road through the introduction of flexible kerb space, while Aecom’s idea was to investigate how technology can enable traffic lights to ‘talk’ to vehicles.

Back in January, the National Infrastructure Commission, alongside Highways England and Innovate UK, launched the Roads for the Future competition received 81 entries with ideas for how the UK’s road network could be adapted to maximise the potential benefits these new vehicles could bring. These ideas could have investigated any aspect of the segment such as new travel opportunities, freeing up time focused on driving, and helping to improve safety.

The competition itself followed the release the first-ever National Infrastructure Assessment, a report recommendations for how the identified infrastructure needs to be altered or adapted for autonomous vehicles. Some of these recommendations included that the Government devise a National Broadband Plan by Spring 2019, to deliver full fibre connections across the whole of the country, including those in rural areas.

Technology is obviously critical for the development and adoption of autonomous vehicles, as is the 4G/5G infrastructure, but it is nice to see the roads are being considered as well.

Google grabs pole position in the automotive infotainment race

Google has been named as the technology partner of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance to embed the Android operating system in vehicles sold all around the world.

The alliance, which sold a combined 10.6 million vehicles in 200 markets across last year, will integrate Google applications and services into infotainment and cloud-based systems. While each platform will be powered by the Android OS, each brand will have flexibility to create a unique customer interface and specific features on top. The partnership is scheduled to begin in 2021.

“Our partnership with Google will offer owners of our vehicles rich user experiences that are currently available only outside the vehicle or, to a limited extent, by connecting an Android device to supported vehicles,” said Hadi Zablit, SVP of Business Development at Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi.

“We are building powerful connected and seamless on-board/off-board experiences into our vehicles in addition to the features of Google applications and services that many users are accustomed to, including Google Maps, the Google Assistant and the Google Play Store.”

As part of the agreement, Google Maps will power the turn-by-turn navigation systems, while a range of automotive apps will be available to download from the Google Play Store. Users will be able to answer calls and texts, control media, find information, and manage vehicle functions with voice using the Google Assistant.

For Google the move makes a lot of sense. With voice interaction becoming more common, it offers the internet giant an opportunity to generate revenues in environments where a screen is not an option. Both Google and Amazon are attempting to infiltrate as much of the consumers life as possible, and the car is an excellent place to start.

The move also suggests the digital economy will not be as fragmented as some might have feared. Last week BMW announced it was launching its own app, leaving both Amazon and Google out of the equation, to improve the in-car experience. It should not be seen as unusual for OEMs to attempt to create value by owning the customer experience, though the more apps there are on the market, the more fragmented the ecosystem becomes and the more thinly spread data is. Should several assistants all be vying for the attention of the consumer, it is highly unlikely enough data will be collected to create a personalised environment.

With the Google Assistant now interacting with tens of millions of more consumers through the infotainment system, it creates a much more secure foothold in the digital assistant market. Google is no longer limited to your phone or your speaker, but can drive interaction in the car as well.

Of course, with interaction comes revenue opportunities. How long before you infotainment system suggests taking a slight detour to pick up a Big Mac because your Google calendar knows you have a spare 20 minutes before the meeting starts? And how much money will McDonalds pay Google to suggest that detour?

Here launches interactive Traffic Dashboard

Digital mapping company Here has launched a new product designed to let users plan their urban journeys based on real-time traffic congestion information.

It’s called Traffic Dashboard and it not only reports existing congestion and traffic incidents, but anticipated ones too. It has been launched ahead of ITS World Congress and, to be honest, it looks like a bit of a gimmick to generate some coverage and little more, so job done there then,

“Nobody likes to be in traffic,” informed Helmuth Ritzer, VP of Connected Vehicle Services at Here. “But nobody alone can solve the problems it causes. For this we need more collaboration between the public and the private sectors to offer better services. With the Here Traffic Dashboard we provide insights into the vast amount of traffic information – from real-time to historical traffic data to sophisticated traffic analytics – that we can provide drivers, cities and businesses for more informed decision making.”

Here was once known as Navteq until Nokia bought it for $8 billion back in 2007 because it figured mapping would be quite important for smartphones. It wasn’t wrong but the ubiquity of Android and Google Maps scuppered that bight idea and it ended up flogging its mapping business to a consortium of German car makers for just $3 billion. You can check out the Dashboard below.

Elsewhere in the car tech world Qualcomm has announced the latest product of its relationship with China Mobile. This took the form of some LTE-V2X roadside units that are designed to help with safety, traffic, autonomous driving and that sort of thing. It uses the 5.9 GHz band and is compliant with the appropriate 3GPP standards for vehicle IoT.

“With the prosperity of ITS, connected vehicles demand communication with lower latency, higher reliability and wider bandwidth,” said Chenguang Wei, Deputy GM of China Mobile Research Institute. “We are pleased to see the RSUs that were developed with CMIoT deployed as a part of a pilot project in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, and are looking forward in to continuing to work with CMIoT and Qualcomm Technologies to help drive the maturity of the technology in the industry and in China.”

BMW launches its own virtual assistant – let’s hope that’s not the start of a trend

BMW has made a bold statement this week, breaking free from the shackles of Silicon Valley. In launching its own virtual assistant, BMW is confident it can deliver a better experience than Google, Amazon or Microsoft.

From March 2019, the BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant will be powering the automotive experience. Whether its checking traffic conditions, learning your habits to create journeys which incorporate a McDonalds Drive Thru, telling you how certain features work or operating functions through the voice interface, it’s the futuristic dream which has been promised by artificial intelligence.

“Software is one of the main investment areas in our company. Not only for the connected car or digital services, but also in the classic IT, with autonomous driving it becomes very important,” said Dieter May, SVP of Digital Products at BMW

“I think our assistant needs to have the capabilities to operate the car at the end of the day and that is why we believe for safety and integrity reasons we need to manage that customer interface. Overall we have a two pronged approach. For BMW ecosystem related topics and plus the car operations, we have our technology stack, but then we are also able to dispatch depending on the type of questions to third party assistants.”

In terms of what the virtual assistant actually is, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. Of course, a functional virtual assistant is certainly something to be applauded, but BMW don’t seem to be doing anything which is already on the market aside from being able to rename the assistant whatever you want. It is specific to the car environment, but we suspect it wouldn’t take long for the likes of Google or Amazon to figure this out. So why break away from the Silicon Valley experts?

As with any new software breakthrough, the manufacturers try to create their own proprietary offering. There is no problem trying to own the customer experience, they are customers of that business after all, and it does offer an opportunity to differentiate. In this case, it is also part of the Infotainment package being sold to customers as well. However, in most cases, the versions created by the OEMs is sub-standard to the version created by the experts, and we suspect it will be the case here as well.

The beauty and downfall of virtual assistants is the machine learning and personalisation opportunity. The beauty is the constant improvements in the accuracy and effectiveness of the software, though the downfall is exactly the same. If you don’t use it enough, there isn’t enough data to train the algorithm, and the assistant falls short of the promised personalisation leading to poor customer experience. This is where BMW could be kicking off a dangerous trend in attempting to create its own virtual assistant.

Should others follow suit and attempt to own the assistant, the space will become incredibly fragmented. Your smartphone could become littered with different assistants for different parts of your life. Not only would this be incredibly irritating and confusing, but it would impact the performance of the assistants themselves. As mentioned before, virtual assistants are only as good as the hours they are used. If you are splitting your time over several different assistants, it reduces the amount of data each collects and can be used to train the algorithm. The result could be several so-so or poor assistants, offering more generalised services, instead of a single virtual assistant which collects all information about the user and is incredibly personalised.

Both consequences would be very negative for the development of virtual assistants. If there are too many hyper-specialised assistants, they become irritating so people will stop using them. And if the training data is spread too thin, the personalisation promise is never realised, with users probably ignoring the generalist services which never quite hit the mark.

The BMW virtual assistant might well be a good bit of kit, though we suspect the software engineers at the firm are not quite in the same league as counterparts in Amazon, Google or Microsoft. But whether it is any good now is not the point. Over-saturating the virtual assistant segment significantly lowers the glass ceiling of personalisation and will damage the long-term potential of the technology.

West Midlands bags UK 5G test-bed prize

The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has been selected as the region for the UK’s first multi-city 5G test bed with trials set to kick-off next year.

The Urban Connected Communities Project will make use of a £25 million investment from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, as well as £25 million from regional partners, trialling new 5G applications and services at scale. A further £25 million could be made available to the initiative in the future, with Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton the three primary locations for the trials.

“5G has the potential to dramatically transform the way we go about our daily lives, and we want the citizens of the UK to be amongst the first to experience all the opportunities and benefits this new technology will bring,” said Minister for Digital, Margot James. “The West Midlands Testbed, which is the first of its kind anywhere in the world, will be instrumental in helping us realise this ambition.”

The West Midlands Combined Authorities bid has an initial focus on the health, construction and automotive sectors, with its overarching ambition to help drive economic growth. One of the consistent messages from the government over the last few years has been the ambition to spread the wealth more evenly throughout the UK using 5G as a catalyst. The West Midlands is one region which has embraced this concept, aiming to establish a global tech hub for autonomous and electric vehicles and components through 5G benefits.

“This announcement is game-changing for the West Midlands economy,” said Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands. “This will be the backbone of our future economy and society.

“The potential of this technology is endless  – and we will enjoy the benefits first. From monitoring the health of babies and the elderly, to the way out people are linked to the economy of the future, the way companies do business, the way we deliver public services, the experience of travellers on public transport and the way we deliver City of Culture and the Commonwealth Games – everything can be made better thanks to the power of this technology.”

The Midlands has already been carving a name for itself in the digital economy with Coventry one of the UK hubs for autonomous vehicles. Alongside Milton Keynes, Coventry is one of the main hubs for UK Autodrive, the largest of three separate government-backed consortia to test autonomous vehicles. As part of the initiative, Jaguar Land Rover and Tata Motors European Technical Centre trialled the technology in Coventry city centre during November 2017, the first such trials on the open road in the UK. Some of the features being trialled in this initiative included Intersection Priority Management, Green Light Optimal Speed Advisory, Collaborative Parking and Intersection Collision Warning.

Moving forward, Jaguar Land Rover will continue to be an active partner of the region as part of the driverless push, while health care will also be taken into the digital economy with ‘connected ambulances’. Paramedic crews at an incident could access specialist advice at the scene through video conferencing with consultants or other clinical specialists, while streaming of patient data from ambulance en route to hospital could help inform the immediate care patients receive on arrival.

Other initiatives include the development of intelligent CCTV, with AI monitoring the feed and able to identify potential incidents. Police Officers can be more efficiently directed to incidents, while the AI could provide the opportunity for far greater coverage than is possible at present with human operatives.

While sceptics might have assumed the government promises of investments in digital infrastructure was nothing but hot air, it has been much more generous over the last couple of weeks. Aside from this announcement, the UK Government also released an additional £95 million to the Local Full Fibre Networks (LFFN) Challenge Fund to close the digital divide. Perhaps the bank accounts are starting to creak open.

Toyota invests half a billion dollars in Uber to save both companies

Japanese car maker Toyota has invested $500 million dollars to expand its collaboration with ride-sharing company Uber in autonomous driving cars.

After putting a brake on its self-driving car tests earlier this year, Uber has entered a new phase of collaborating with car makers as exemplified by this venture. Both companies will contribute their respective auto-driving technologies, as well as Uber’s ridesharing and Toyota’s car making expertise, to a new purpose-built Toyota Sienna Minivan. The new fleet produced out of this collaboration will not be owned by either company. Instead, according to the press releases, “the mass-produced autonomous vehicles will be owned and operated by mutually agreed upon third party autonomous fleet operators.”

This is not the first auto-driving partnership with car makers Uber has entered. Daimler, Volvo and others are also on its roster. It is not even the first time it worked with Toyota, but it is the first time that the collaboration is taking the such a form, so that the venture becomes a supplier to other service providers.

This may not amount to an outright divestiture of the autonomous driving business that Uber investors have been crying for, it nonetheless will help alleviate the financial pressure on the Uber management in the run-up to the planned IPO, without pulling out of one of the most important long-term, strategic areas in the automobile industry.

“The deal is the first of its kind for Uber, and signals our commitment to bringing world-class technologies to the Uber network,” said Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s CEO. “Uber’s advanced technology and Toyota’s commitment to safety and its renowned manufacturing prowess make this partnership a natural fit.”

This sentiment is echoed by Toyota. “This agreement and investment marks an important milestone in our transformation to a mobility company as we help provide a path for safe and secure expansion of mobility services like ride-sharing that includes Toyota vehicles and technologies,” said Shigeki Tomoyama, president of Toyota Connected Company, and executive vice president of Toyota Motor Corporation.

This is more than a symbolic move, as neither Uber nor Toyota is leading in autonomous driving. Actually neither of them is leading in either of the two strategic growth areas in the car industries, the other being electric vehicles (EV). While Tesla makes all the headlines in EV, it is the Chinese car makers that are selling far more EV and hybrid cars than anyone else.

When it comes autonomous driving, the disruption actually came from outside the automobile industry, with Waymo (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) being the leader (with whom Uber settled a dispute earlier this year). Tesla and Uber are following closely, though the traditional car makers have also heeded the wake-up call.

This kind of disruption from other than the usual suspects is nothing new to those of us who have followed the mobile telecom industry. Smartphones were introduced by companies traditionally associated the computer industry (Apple) and Internet (Google), which ultimately rendered names like SonyEricsson, Motorola, HTC, and Nokia obsolete.

In another interesting development, Finland’s Technical Research Centre (VTT) recently joined forces with Nokia to invest in a driverless “robot car” using the 5G network to be rolled out. It looks the once disrupted mobile telecom company is aiming to bring disruption to the automobile industry. The first targets are reporting weather conditions on the road as well as real-time road maintenance data analytics. Longer term, with a fleet of “robot cars” on the road under a well rolled out 5G network, VTT’s “5G-Safe” project, which “robot car” being part of, will aim to deliver a new use case of 5G to the transport industry.

The road to autonomous driving is quickly getting crowded and noisy.

Qualcomm claims first multi-vendor C-V2X demo in China

Mobile chip giant Qualcomm is pushing hard to be a key player in cellular communications between vehicles and the rest of the world.

The somewhat forced abbreviation for this sort of thing is C-V2X (cellular vehicle to everything) and the Qualcomm 9150 chipset is designed to enable it. In partnership with Chinese firm Datang Telecom Group Qualcomm has claimed the first demonstration of multi-chipset vendor C-V2X direct communication interoperability.

“This interoperability test conducted with Qualcomm Technologies is of great importance and is a milestone for the industry as it is the first chip level PC5 Mode 4 interoperability test, which demonstrated the maturity and readiness of commercial deployment for C-V2X technology,” said Yingmin Wang, CTO of Datang Telecom Group.

“Achieving this milestone with Datang is quite significant as it exemplifies the technology maturity to support C-V2X commercial deployments starting in 2019,” said Nakul Duggal, VP of Product Management at Qualcomm. “With our long history of wireless leadership in China, and close collaborations with the automotive and telecom industries, we look forward to continued work alongside leaders in China as we collectively advance towards the commercial reality of safer and more connected vehicles.”

This is all compatible with 3GPP Release 14 C-V2X direct communications (PC5) Mode 4, otherwise known as LTE-V2X. The demo used the Qualcomm 9150 chipset and Datang’s DMD31 LTE-V2X module, using the 5.9 GHz spectrum, which has been set aside for this sort of thing. One of the key use-cases will vehicle-to-infrastructure communication that is needed for things like automated collision avoidance and autonomous driving in general.

Uber urged to sell self-driving unit; are investors stupid or greedy?

Just as transportation disruptor Uber unveils its financials for the latest quarter, investors have reportedly been pressing the management team to sell-off its self-driving unit, a move that’s either short-sighted or short-termist.

According to The Information, with losses piling high in the self-driving unit, reportedly $125-200 million a quarter for the last 18 months, investors are recommending the management team sell off assets and focus on the here and now. It doesn’t matter that self-driving cars are the future, or that the potential to kill Uber as a business lies in technology, investors don’t want the losses on the spreadsheets anymore.

In terms of the cash being spent on developments in the self-driving unit, it is a notable hole to fill. Even with Uber increasing revenues 51% year-on-year for the quarter to $2.7 billion, it is a lot. However, those who are suggesting the firm ignore the self-driving euphoria clearly don’t understand this is not a choice; for Uber to survive in the long-run, self-driving cars have to be a priority.

Uber exists today because it was a major disruptor to a long-time established area of society. It made taxis accessible once again, using technology to address pain-points, firstly, the complications of finding a car at 2am and, secondly, the price. Those who benefited from the status quo protested the presence of Uber, though the consumer was thrilled. In a cash-conscious society, offering a good service for less will always be a popular idea.

This is why investments in self-driving vehicles is imperative at Uber. If it doesn’t nail the self-driving experience, someone will come along and disrupt the market. Uber and similar services will soon become the status quo in Western societies, and self-driving cars will become the norm at some point in the future. This point might not be for five or ten or even twenty years, there are a lot of parallel hurdles, but if Uber is not ready with its own proposition, it will decline in popularity quickly.

Removing drivers is the next step to make the taxi service industry cheaper and more attractive to the consumer; it will happen, the only question which remains is when. For Uber, it is a case of disrupt or be disrupted. It has benefitted from a technology revolution in the taxi segment, and the next one is clear.

The investors who are calling for the sale of the self-driving unit are either short-sighted, unable to recognise trends in the industry, or short-termist, simply seeking a pay-out over the next couple of quarters with no eye on long-term interests. Neither is a particularly attractive description.

Ford pledges $4bn to drive forward autonomous vehicles business

Ford has announced the creation of a new organization and $4 billion in investment through to 2023 to accelerate the firms efforts in developing autonomous vehicles.

The new business, which will be known as Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC, will include Ford’s self-driving systems integration, autonomous vehicle research and advanced engineering, AV transportation-as-a-service network development, user experience, business strategy and business development teams. It will also be structured to allow for investment from third parties.

“Ford has made tremendous progress across the self-driving value chain – from technology development to business model innovation to user experience,” said Jim Hackett, CEO of Ford Motor Company. “Now is the right time to consolidate our autonomous driving platform into one team to best position the business for the opportunities ahead.”

Sherif Marakby will head up the new business for the moment, reporting into Marcy Klevorn, the President of Ford’s Mobility group, with a hope aligning the two areas will improve development. The new group will also hold Ford’s ownership stake in Argo AI, the company’s Pittsburgh-based partner for self-driving system development. It should also be worth noting the $4 billion figure includes the $1 billion already to committed to Argo AI last year. Despite the misleading PR play from Ford, it is still a notable pledge.

Spinning off business unit to allow more freedoms in the autonomous vehicles world is starting to look like a popular move after General Motors did the same with Cruise in May. Cruise, which was initially bought by General Motors in March 2016 for $581 million to bolster the software capabilities, also managed to attract attention from Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank Vision Fund, which committed to a $2.25 billion investment.

While rules, regulations, the ecosystem, infrastructure or the consumer, are not ready for the world of autonomous vehicles, progress is being made. General Motors filed a Safety Petition with the Department of Transportation for its fourth-generation self-driving Cruise AV, which it believes will be production ready by 2019. With General Motors making rapid progress, the cash injection and spin off from Ford becomes less surprising.

Ford expects its vehicles to be production ready by 2021, though with General Motors and Google’s Waymo both aiming to hit the roads before this point, Ford has some catching up to do. Realistically, although the technology might be ready, mass market penetration is likely to be decades away. Aside from the fact few are likely to swallow the substantial price tag as soon as the vehicles are available, there is still a huge amount of progress to be made in parallel spaces.

Rules and regulations will have to be-written to start, and the insurance industry will have to be restructured to account for less intervention from humans. The question also needs to answered on the allocate criminal and civil responsibility should an incident occur; should the owner of the vehicle be responsible, or should the automotive manufacturers be blamed as they own the AI? Cybersecurity is also a massive oversight. Finally, consumers need to be comfortable handing over control to a computer. We suspect the latter will take a huge amount of time and PR campaigns.