According to a recent report by Gartner, there will be more than 61 million connected cars on the road by 2020. Although this is a global estimation, it stands to reason that the North American market (especially the U.S.) will drive much of the early adoption in this space. In fact, the move towards connected cars has already begun. If you use the GPS app on your cell phone for guidance, then in a way, you are already driving a connected car. Granted, this may be the loosest definition, but it highlights the potential for connected cars. However, one aspect often overlooked in all the excitement about connected cars is the potential for such vehicles to crash mobile networks.
Let’s face it: the U.S. is a very big country and mobile network service providers are already struggling to keep up with the massive explosion of data usage, while seeking to close coverage gaps. These two factors combined describe the perfect storm scenario for the viability of connected cars.
As such, capital expense alone might be one of the impediments to mass adoption. And it’s not just the cost of building a cell phone network. Sprint announced earlier this year that the company is raising $3 to $5 Bn to bolster its much-maligned network. But it is also the cost of getting a device certified for transmission on a carrier’s network. This brings us to the first reason why connected vehicles will crash mobile networks.
In 2014, Cisco issued a report entitled Mobile Data Explosion. In the report, the company predicted mobile data traffic would grow elevenfold by 2018. Even if this forecast is only half correct, it would put a tremendous strain on mobile networks. To be sure, some mobile operators are busy upgrading their networks. These activities include adding base stations and even seeking to virtualize aspects of network operations. However, the logistics of such an explosion of data will eventually strain a carrier’s ability to keep up with investment demand. The result will be dropped or slowed service, and this could mean the difference between life and death when a car is moving at 30 or 40 miles per hour.
Another issue that will be exacerbated by connected cars are gaps in coverage. As good as LTE service is, it does not reach far and wide. In urban settings, it could be due to signal interference or line of sight issues. Rural gaps are not only due a result of line of sight issues, but also because towers in those areas are not cost effective. There other challenges, such as tunnels, which require more robust solutions such as repeaters or wiring. As connected cars become more common, OEMs and software developers will need to develop workarounds for such inherent weaknesses. These could include cache servers or in-vehicle repeaters. If not, the coverage gaps could be the undoing of connected cars.
Park (pun intended) data privacy concerns for a moment. One issue with connected cars is security. It is not just security for the car and its systems, but also how mobile networks protect themselves from malware loaded onto the onboard systems in connected cars. The challenge is almost beyond scope as network access points multiply at a pace never seen. Another challenge is the relative ease with which cars can be hacked. A case in point is the 2015 hack by Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek. Benign as it was, little has been done since to secure networks. Wired reported in August that the duo is back to prove that it can get much worse. Even though the target had been the car itself, it opens the possibility that someone might use a corrupted car to infect a wireless network.
One challenge that is perplexing OEMs and network operators alike is how to manage vehicle-to-vehicle communications, especially in a world where millions of vehicles are connected. Although some communications will happen without the assistance of a cellular network, this will only work over short distances, even at speed.
Communicating road conditions and other information between vehicles will require a more robust solution, one which will probably include mobile networks. If this is correct, then the challenge is how fast multiple networks will be able to receive, analyze, and transmit data as lag times that, although acceptable for today’s needs, will become dangers in a connected car ecosystem.
It’s more than just lag time. Just about every country hosts multiple mobile networks, and each network would need to host multiple services for each automaker at the cell level. The alternative is that the motor vehicle department oversees this transfer of data; however, this solution might complicate driving cars across state lines.
There is little denying that connected cars are coming. In many ways, they are already here. Whilst challenges remain for automakers, one should not overlook how connected cars will tax mobile networks- quite possibly to the point where networks will crash.