MWC: Smart highways and driverless cars coming in 2030 - for real?

The first step, in-car wireless infotainment systems, set for mass rollouts this year; experts say extending that to smart highways is a massive task

Crowds at Mobile World Congress here this week clamoured to see in-car infotainment systems that will soon be connected to the Internet via wireless networks around the globe.

Even before such in-car systems are rolled out on a massive scale, designers and engineers are already dreaming and worried about next steps in the process of having entire cities operate smart highway grids to handle driverless cars.

Ford, AT&T, General Motors and chipmaker Qualcomm, among others, used the MWC platform to show off in-car systems designed to help car drivers and passengers interact with the outside world, and make them aware of the status of the car's engine and systems.

Qualcomm used a black matte-painted Mercedes Benz CLA45 AMG Turbo to draw attention to its BlackBerry QNX-based concept infotainment system.

With in-car systems clearly on the way, the inevitable question arises: When exactly will we see driverless cars and driverless highway networks?

Several experts asked that question gave wide-ranging and a bit eye-opening answers.

For instance, an AT&T official predicted that smart highways could arrive in some cities in between 10 and 20 years, while engineers at Cisco and GM saw a more gradual rollout of one system at a time in a process that would take several decades.

A top technologist at GM said driverless cars will likely still need human help control cars during snowstorms and over black ice.

Over the next two years, millions of cars on US roads will be equipped with wireless LTE connectivity and in-car dashboard interfaces, the experts noted. But that first step is still far away from the creation and construction of smart highway systems in just one mid-sized US city. Businesses and government must also come up with ways to govern, operate and finance smart highways.

If it sounds challenging to design an OS and apps and wireless connections for running Pandora radio or Netflix movies inside a car, just imagine the complex job of putting network-connected sensors along highways, at traffic lights and near hospitals to wirelessly connect to cars and emergency vehicles to the Internet.

The development of a system to govern smart highways could be huge - every city council, local police department, state government and several federal agencies will want a say in it.

Timothy Nixon, chief technology officer for the global connected consumer at GM, said he and others at the automaker recognise the the many challenges they face in building driverless cars that can operate over smart highways.

"We want to make sure we think carefully about [driverless cars and smart highways], and we want to be responsible so that drivers keep hands on the wheel," Nixon said in an interview at MWC. "It's daunting to think about what we do. We want to be careful and do it right."

Even just creating radio technology to support in-car infotainment is a very complex task, he noted. "People probably underestimate how much work is involved," he said.

Nixon, who works in Detroit, also said it's hard to imagine how driverless cars would ever work along snow-covered streets in the winter. "What about snowstorms and black ice?" Nixon asked. "People as drivers will always have to be there as a fallback."

Marco Carnevale, an innovation architect at GM, helped develop a demonstration app for Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch that can lock, unlock and turn off a car at the touch of a finger. GM showed off the app at MWC using a canary yellow 2014 Corvette Stingray. The Tizen-based app is written in HTML5, also used in the Gear 2.

Carnevale predicted that smart highways will roll out gradually over many years, as new functions, such as radar technology that can detect if the car is properly aligned in a lane, are added to vehicles.

Three years ago, GM demonstrated at an Asian auto show an En-V two-person concept vehicle with smart technologies designed to work on smart highways by 2030, just 16 years away. Carnevale wouldn't even venture a guess if that forecast is possible.

AT&T Mobility's Joseph Mosele, vice president of business development for emerging devices, heads up a group at the company that's charged with finding ways to connect cars, smartphones and wearables to the AT&T wireless network.

"With our LTE network, we want to give the same experience in the car of using a smartphone," he said. AT&T is supporting GM efforts for in-car infotainment that will start appearing later in 2014 on many car models.

Mosele predicted that autonomous cars will make their way to highways in some cities "in the next 10 to 20 years. There could be a time when you don't even own the car, similar to Zip car. It will drive itself to pick you up. Autonomous driving will be possible with the wireless network communicating from your car to other cars on the road and to see the red light changing. That's in the early days."

Mosele said he's confident in his forecast because of how smartphones have evolved so quickly in recent years. "I've been at AT&T for 19 years and started when cellular phones barely made voice calls. Now look at what they do," he said. "Although 10 to 20 years for smart highways sounds short, look at how much the industry has evolved."

Mosele said it's obvious that government entities will influence the development of smart highway grids, just as governments permitted cable and telecommunications network projects in the U.S. "Smart highways are futuristic ... it's being talked about at AT&T," he said.

Many drivers today say they would never give up the wheel of their car to a computer or a wireless network, while others say they like idea of getting around town or to work safely and comfortably without the frustrations of traffic and the dangers of angry or drunk drivers. "Think about how much safer smart highways will be," Mosele said.

At Cisco, engineers are cranking out routers, switches and wireless LAN gear to power the explosion in the Internet of Things, which will include highway traffic signals, speed detecting sensors and more.

Sanjeev Mervana, senior director of marketing for Cisco's service provider business, said he can foresee a day in the next 30 years when progressive cities like San Jose, Calif., home of Cisco, develop smart highways. Perhaps there will even be traffic utilities, similar to power utilities, that evolve from wireless service providers to build and operate traffic networks.

"The entire basic infrastructure [for smart highways] is evolving," Mervana said. "It will take lots of server racks and power to do all you need for smart highways and smart cities. It's not just about network connectivity, but also how you manage the data."

Governments will surely be involved, Mervana added. "Definitely there's a regulator role. The technology pieces are there now and it's more about the rate of adoption. Some cities, like San Jose, will lead. Sometimes it's not the technology that matters the most. Just think about what's involved with the mass adoption of smart highways. It's not just having the technology piece in place," he said.

Mervana, who was trained as an electrical engineer, said wireless carriers are already planning how they can make their networks resilient enough to support billions of real-time wireless interactions with vehicles and sensors along roadways. At AT&T, GM's infotainment in-car systems will operate at 4G LTE and then drop back to 3G and even 2G for backup, a model for future smart highway redundancy.

AT&T has also devised technology for in-car entertainment to be billed separately from the cost of wireless network services, although both can be presented on a single bill. GM's existing OnStar wireless service is being used behind the infotainment offerings coming later in 2014 in GM cars. The wireless network link used in making each request for an app or Internet service will be charged to the driver, but GM will pay for the cellular service to send the app or other data to the car.

Cellular billing for infotainment in cars is one thing, but nobody seems to be talking publicly about the manner in which consumers will be charged for municipal traffic wireless services to keep their cars driving safely on the smart highways of the future.

There may be a U.S. Federal Communications Commission fee on everybody's wireless bills to reimburse local governments for putting in network-connected stoplights and other equipment. Congress will surely want a say in that matter.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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