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The Future: Driverless Cars and Wireless Infrastructure

William Webb

William Webb, IEEE Fellow and CTO Neul

At CES 2013 driverless cars were big news. And while the likes of Toyota and Google are working on the technology inside the cars to make these a reality – William Webb, IEEE fellow and CTO of Neul knows that the wireless infrastructure needs to be up to scratch too.

IEEE experts have recently identified driverless cars as the most viable form of intelligent transport, set to dominate the roadway by 2040 and spark dramatic changes in vehicular travel.

Related: Google's Driverless Cars Now Legal in Nevada

As far as I can tell, there is one key barrier to the widespread adoption of intelligent transport (aside from driver and passenger acceptance of automated vehicles) and that is the infrastructure of our roads and vehicles. More specifically, the wireless infrastructure.

Monitoring traffic flow is relatively easy, as is deducing where congestion is occurring and working out where to reroute cars. However, there is still a big piece missing from the intelligent transport puzzle – a way to get information from sensors to controls centres, and from there back to cars, traffic lights, and roadside signage. Wireless connectivity is the only option when facing this challenge. Whilst this might seem obvious in the case of moving vehicles, the cost of installing the wires for sensors in stationary items such as bridges of car-parking spaces is completely prohibitive – making wireless a big issue.

Self-driving car Toyota Prius prototype. Via Google

Self-driving car Toyota Prius prototype. Via Google

We live in a world of the iPhone and mobile broadband, so you would be forgiven for thinking that this problem of connectivity is already solved. Unfortunately this is not the case. Although mobile networks work great for people, they are terrible for machines. The needs and applications are so very different that there is little use in trying to use one network for both. In fact, the reason that we don't yet have a congestion-free world is that we don't have a wireless network designed for sensors, traffic lights, or more generally "machines".

This 'machine network' would have be different to a mobile network in several key ways, including using much lower data rates than mobile broadband to allow greater range, as well as simpler and more cost effective chip sets and longer battery life. Crucially, it would also need to allow machines to "sleep" for much of the time, allowing them to conserve their batteries for up to ten years.

Lack of vision and radio spectrum are to blame for the non-existence of such a network to date. Spectrum comes in a number of different frequencies and bandwidths, and a machine system would require spectrum with very particular characteristics. It would need spectrum where radio signals travel far, where there is enough capacity for perhaps one billion devices in the UK alone, and crucially spectrum that is much less expensive than £22bn because car park sensors won't pay as much per month as iPhone users.

Recently, some spectrum that fits these characteristics has been found, and work is still under way to make it available for commercial use. Alongside this, a number of engineers have got together to develop a standardised technology that will work well with the spectrum identified – "white space spectrum" – and be optimal for machines. This technology is called "Weightless" although if all goes to plan you may never hear about it…

Steve Mahan who is legally blind was google's first self-driving car user. The video below is his experience: