The Next Five Years of Vehicle Connectivity: Where will we be?

Whether for reasons like safety, or updates or communication, car connectivity is here to stay and offers eye-opening possibilities as we look to its future 

By Dave Elniski

Introduction

Whenever Apple, Samsung, or other tech companies make announcements about new smartphone technology, they create intense consumer interest.  New digital technology now dominates conversations about both personal and commercial vehicles; today’s car nut is just as likely to be enthralled by developments in connected vehicle technology, autonomous driving, and enhanced driver digital experiences as they are by anything related to internal combustion powertrains or traditional luxury features.

We are in the age of vehicle connectivity, a term that means vehicles that have the ability to communicate with other vehicles, the environment around them, and the internet.  The technology in vehicles is advancing as quickly as it is in any other part of our lives.  Today’s science fiction could very well be standard features in a few short years.

While personal vehicle manufacturers like Tesla, Rivian, and GM are making headlines with their connected features and electrification endeavours, commercial Class 8 truck manufacturers are also bringing these features to their vehicles.  Truckers today can enjoy truck-specific navigation systems and driver-assist technologies like lane control while their carriers enjoy advanced real-time telematics to assist in route planning, dispatching, and preventative maintenance.

In the sections below, we’ll explore what vehicle connectivity may look like in the near future (i.e. the next five years).  We’ll also look at how these changes will impact the vehicle experience of trucking companies and private consumers alike.

Autonomous driving

Self-driving cars frequent the headlines when it comes to vehicle connectivity and car-related news.  This is no wonder considering how significant our society could change once fully autonomous cars become common.

The Society of Automotive Engineering (SAE) has established levels of vehicle autonomy to help distinguish between vehicles with differing levels of self-driving capability [1].  Vehicles at Level 0 require complete driver engagement in all aspects of driving (although they may have some automatic emergency braking features and advanced safety features that alert the driver to hazards).

As vehicles progress through the levels they require less driver interaction.  Level 5 vehicles (vehicles with the greatest self-driving capabilities) require no driver at all and as such, can drive themselves in all conditions.

At this point in time, there are no fully autonomous Level 5 vehicles for sale in North America.  However, manufacturers already offer cars to the general public that provide extremely high levels of autonomy.  Tesla, for example, offers vehicle packages for their cars titled “Autopilot” and “Full Self-Driving Capability” which provide driver-free control of the vehicles steering, braking, and accelerating when on the highway, but they state clearly on their website that these cars require a “fully attentive driver, who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any moment” [2].

This isn’t to say that fully autonomous vehicles haven’t been on the road in North America; they have, but have had drivers present and have been part of larger research and pioneering efforts.  Take Waymo, as an example: since its start as the Google Self-Driving Car Project in 2009, Waymo vehicles have operated millions of self-driving miles on public roads through the USA as part of an effort to advance self-driving car technology [3].

In the commercial trucking world, pilot projects on heavy truck automation are already underway in Canada.  In Alberta, Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA) is currently overseeing a project where two Class 8 tractor-trailers will be platooning between Calgary and Edmonton [4].  In this project, the second of the two trucks in a close convoy is driven automatically based on information from sensors on the front truck.  There is, of course, a fully qualified driver behind the wheel of each truck, but what this project shows is that vehicle autonomy is being actively trialed in heavy commercial vehicles.

True self-driving cars are not currently available and we probably won’t see steering-wheel-optional cars at dealerships in the next five years.  But, self-driving features are already here, and Level 5 autonomy is being operated as part of projects around the world.

Network advances

Connected vehicles rely on reliable wireless connections to communicate with the environment around them.  While a human driver does not need an electronic connection outside the vehicle, an autonomous vehicle can take advantage of data available to it from external sources to improve its performance and safety, which means connected vehicles have access to additional information not available to drivers of non-connected cars.

As the demand for data for connected vehicles grows, the wireless networks that support these features will play a role in how quickly this technology advances.  5G networks are being seen as a gatekeeper for advanced connected vehicle technology implementation [5]; there is a bit of egg-versus-chicken going on in the connected vehicle world as future features will require 5G network performance to operate at their best.  Consumers and fleet managers who are interested in vehicle connectivity should be watching for 5G advances.

When asked about timelines for consumers, Scott McCormick, president of the Connected Vehicle Trade Association (CVTA), says “5G cellular is not a single thing, but a suite of technologies that all must be in place to accomplish the sub-1-millisecond latency vehicles need for safety communications, and this will take years to deploy nationwide.”

Whether or not the next five years will bring about 5G networks throughout Canada remains to be seen, but this isn’t the only variable affecting the deployment of advanced vehicle features.  According to McCormick, “The four primary communications protocols in or coming to vehicles are Satellite, Cellular, WiFi and Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC).”  He says that consumers should monitor which protocols offer the best connectivity and price points as developments occur over the coming years.

Vehicle obsolescence

There is a potential area of concern as vehicle connectivity rapidly advances: obsolescence.  Computers and phones that are cutting-edge today quickly become less appealing as technology advances, and depending on the device and its intended purpose, useable lifespans can be frustratingly short.  There is a chance that connected car features could change the way we think about vehicle lifespans.

When asked about the possible impacts advanced connectivity features could have on vehicle obsolescence, McCormick says “I don’t think anyone really needs to worry about vehicle obsolescence”, adding “almost all automakers attempt to forecast how long each communication protocol will be around and include antennas for what they see will be needed if technology evolves.”

Those inclined to own the newest connected vehicle technology are likely resigned to the fact that they will have to regularly trade in their cars; however, automakers are unlikely to want to hold reputations for building vehicles that cannot remain on the road for a reasonable amount of time.  There are negative environmental and reputational consequences to selling cars that don’t last and don’t hold their value, so while connected vehicles may increase fears around rapid obsolescence, automakers will do what they can to combat these fears.

One key to keeping any vehicle on the road for a long period of time is designing it in such a way that components can be replaced for reasonable costs.  Consumers – both private and commercial – should pay attention to design modularity.  Modularity, which in this context refers to the construction of a vehicle from smaller, replaceable components (modules), allows a car built today to be updated more easily in the future.  As battery, sensor, and other hardware technology improves, vehicle manufacturers who allow for these upgrades in their original designs will be better prepared to advertise longer vehicle lifespans.

Commercial versus personal

Commercial carriers are more likely than private consumers to be concerned with safety-related liability.  News related to alternative fuels and environmental regulations may be more interesting to fleet managers than vehicle entertainment systems, and advances in fleet telematics will be of bigger interest to commercial operators since such technology provides data that can help with cost control.

When asked how private consumers and commercial vehicle operators might differ in their adoption of and attitudes to connected vehicle technology, Jean-Marc Picard, executive director of the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association (APTA), says “for carriers, there are a lot of regulations to follow and much is mandated, like electronic logging devices (ELDs).  For consumers, it is more of a social choice.  Carriers will adapt faster when and if governments create mandates.”

Asked the same question, Scott McCormick predicts “commercial vehicles will adopt the technologies that improve driver awareness, reduce liability and reduce operating costs.”  Even though personal and commercial vehicle safety needs are similar, he adds “personal vehicles offer their safety packages across the board, but the infotainment packages offered are based on the general persona of the people that buys or leases each type and trim level of vehicle.”

While government mandates and liability will be major factors in the attitudes carriers have towards vehicle connectivity, they will be wise to monitor advances in vehicle connectivity from a driver retention standpoint.  Picard says heavy truck connected technology could probably help with recruitment to some extent by improving the perceptions people have about the trucking industry, an industry which Picard and many others believe needs an image overhaul.

Safety

Regardless of whether someone is buying a personal vehicle or is in charge of ordering trucks for a fleet, safety enhancements are universally appealing.  With human and driver error being the most common factor leading to a collision [6], dreams of a safer future for all road users are fueled by advances in vehicle technology that can reduce the role a human plays in driving.

“Everything that is developed in terms of technology is done to enhance safety – tires, cameras, sensors, these all have a safety component,” says Jean-Marc Picard, when asked how enhanced vehicle technology will impact highway safety.  Scott McCormick says “Adding connectivity to provide data about the road, weather and traffic conditions along your route is of tremendous value.”

Vehicle connectivity already offers consumers options to enhance their safety while driving.  Currently, higher-end vehicles on the market offer features like heads-up displays which provide the driver with important information without requiring them to look away from the road.  Connected technology allows features like this to provide the driver with information from beyond just their vehicle, like the current speed limit, navigation information, weather, and upcoming road hazards [7].

The ability for a car to gather information about its surroundings and from other vehicles will only increase as wireless technology capabilities grow.  As these improvements are made, cars will be able to interact with each other to alert drivers to hazards they can’t see.  For example, a connected vehicle stopped for a road hazard in a wooded area could send signals out to other vehicles to alert them that it is stopped.  Drivers of connected cars that can receive these signals could then be alerted of the upcoming hazards long before they are able to visually see them; drivers of vehicles without such features would lack the advanced notice.

Vehicle connectivity takes vehicle safety to new theoretical heights.  Our highways and cities are already monitored by countless sensors that provide information for road monitoring services, weather stations, traffic monitoring services, and emergency alert services.  Connected vehicles could potentially tap into this data through a wireless connection, allowing drivers to learn about developing safety-sensitive situations while they are driving.  Many of the pieces needed to bring about a connected vehicle safety revolution are already here; the next five years will see these pieces continue to fall into place.

Continuous Updates

As vehicles increasingly rely on software to deliver greater performance, efficiency, and safety to those who own and drive them, software updates become more of a factor.  Present-day vehicles already receive occasional software updates to enhance performance or fix defects, but much of this work is done at shops as part of a repair or service.

Connected cars offer increased options for software updates outside of a shop or dealership.  Tesla, for example, can provide software updates through WiFi [8].  As network capabilities grow, updates for connected cars may be done through cellular connections and occur without interrupting the regular use of the vehicle.

The ability of a vehicle to be updated both improves the safety of the vehicle and can potentially address concerns over quickened obsolescence that were discussed in an earlier section in this article.  A vehicle bought today contains hardware that might, through better software, be capable of greater performance than what is currently possible.  As the automaker’s engineering teams think of ways to improve their products, updates could be issued to all existing vehicles when improvements are made.  Connectivity allows consumers to enjoy such benefits without increasing the amount of time the vehicle needs to spend at the dealership.  Commercial fleet managers will certainly appreciate anything that can reduce vehicle downtime.

Finally, cybersecurity threats can be more readily addressed when vehicles have connected capabilities.  Of course, driving-related cybersecurity threats are new highway hazards that are only made possible because of vehicle connectivity, but consumers will receive protection from these threats in the form of software updates from automakers who work to defend against such threats.

Summary

With longstanding and start-up manufacturers racing to innovate, choices in new car technology will only accelerate in the near future.  Consumers – whether private or commercial – should be paying attention to this connectivity race because no matter what the next five years bring, one thing is certain: they will not be dull.

References

1 – “SAE International Releases Updated Visual Chart for Its “Levels of Driving Automation” Standard for Self-Driving Vehicles”, The Society of Automotive Engineering, accessed October 13th, 2021, https://www.sae.org/news/press-room/2018/12/sae-international-releases-updated-visual-chart-for-its-%E2%80%9Clevels-of-driving-automation%E2%80%9D-standard-for-self-driving-vehicles

2 – “Autopilot and Full Self-Driving Capability”, Support, Tesla, accessed October 13th, 2021, https://www.tesla.com/support/autopilot

3 – “Waymo Driver, Waymo, accessed October 13th, 2021, https://waymo.com/waymo-driver/

4 – “Release: Canada’s first automated commercial trucks to roll onto Alberta highway”, Alberta Motor Transport Association, accessed October 13th, 2021, https://amta.ca/release-canadas-first-automated-commercial-trucks-roll-onto-alberta-highway/

5 – “5 things to know about 5G if you work in the auto industry”, ericsson.com, accessed October 15th, 2021, https://www.ericsson.com/en/5g/5-things-to-know-about-5g-if-you-work-in-the-auto-industry

6 – “Waymo Simulated Driving Behavior in Reconstructed Fatal Crashes within an Autonomous Vehicle Operating Domain”, John M. Scanlon, Kristofer D. Kusano, Tom Daniel, Christopher Alderson, Alexander Ogle, Trent Victor, Waymo 2021, accessed October 15th, 2021, https://storage.googleapis.com/waymo-uploads/files/documents/Waymo-Simulated-Driving-Behavior-in-Reconstructed-Collisions.pdf

7 – “Head-up Display: Why You Need It in Your Next Car”, Russ Heaps, Kelley Blue Book, accessed October 15th, 2021, https://www.kbb.com/car-advice/head-up-display-why-need-next-car/
8 – “Software Updates”, Support, Tesla, accessed October 15th, 2021, https://www.tesla.com/en_CA/support/software-updates

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