No simple roadmap to autonomous cars

  • 16-Dec-2014 01:21 EST
aei-continental-superpipe-1214.jpg

Continental display shows how aggregating data bandwidth with "super pipe" can improve vehicle connectivity. Total speed (fourth bar) is aggregate of upper three bars.

How do we get to the autonomous-drive car from here? Both the car and the infrastructure have to be changed, but as speakers at the 2014 Los Angeles Auto Show's Connected Car Expo made clear, there has to be a phase-in for both. Even where the electromechanical hardware is or will soon be available for the car, the costs and driver acceptance make it obvious there's just a limited market. Even with 24% of drivers telling J.D. Power that they're presently interested in some variant of autonomous drive, what cities can afford to create a supporting infrastructure of roads and communications systems without a way to monetize the investment?

Steps to variants of autonomous drive

The first steps to semi-autonomous drive are combining adaptive cruise control with automatic braking and surround view cameras and sensors, plus lane-keeping strategies, to permit a "set it and relax" (but pay attention) highway cruise. A number of 2014-15 vehicles have a version of this combination, and with self-parking systems it's seemingly just a few steps to a semi-autonomous drive.

Although semi-autonomous drive on a highway may be an early real-world application, the time-saving potential for traffic management is in the city. However, layouts have to be there, providing useful, time-saving routings to popular destinations—a "if they're there, the cars will come" scenario.

A robust vehicle communications system, from the car to an on-land network, augmented by data transmission to/from the cloud, is a must, and some of the first small steps in that direction were shown and discussed at the expo. One major issue is how the industry will deal with the need for seamless integration of communications systems that have changed dramatically, and to what extent they can be made compatible with each other and those coming in future model cars. Finally, the result must be secure against cyber-attack.

Continental North America unveiled a new telematics platform that seeks to start addressing the subject. The platform was developed in conjunction with Cisco, which was responsible for the security aspects. According to Zach Bolton, Continental Project Engineer, it has the latest authentication protocols and is securely encrypted at both the vehicle and cloud ends. The system not only has to be compatible with WiFi, but all 3G and 4G networks, and also DSRC (dedicated short range communications) if/when it becomes operational for some form of autonomous driving.

"Super-pipe" aggregation

The Continental electronic module (called a network access device) that was developed for the architecture includes what was described by Bolton as a "super pipe." It provides speed and reliability, even when individual channels are limited, by aggregating all available data bandwidth into the single pipe. It can, for example, integrate 3G from one passenger's Verizon phone with 4G from another's AT&T phone, the vehicle's own WiFi hot spot if equipped, or even public WiFi in the area. The total speed of the platform equals the speed of the aggregation in the super pipe. So if an onboard system needs it, such as during a prioritized Cisco Webex meeting, the pipe will collect and use it to keep the connection intact, even if it breaks into a child's streaming video in the back seat.

The system has a unique "pause" feature in the cloud. If the car enters a tunnel with no data reception source, it normally would have to completely reboot when it emerges. The Continental cloud server keeps the data at the same point and just resumes when it can.

The network access device is connected to the vehicle's special antenna and for packaging may even be part of the head unit.

The sensors and GPS systems in use today pose accuracy limits. GPS tolerance may be as great as 100 m (330 ft), although systems with error correction can maintain 1-5 m (3-16 ft), and some advanced GPS receivers get as close as under 30 cm (12 in). An Audi A7 equipped for driverless operation up Pikes Peak last year had a GPS that was rated as close as 2 cm (0.8 in), although that tolerance reportedly increased at various points on the mountain climb.

The electric power steering systems that can park a car would require more sophisticated surround-view systems and ultra-fast response for autonomous drive to safely steer around on-road obstacles, along with higher-performance auto-braking. Some of these are in demonstration phases, but the need for engineering standards and regulatory acceptance has to be satisfied before they can be deployed.

"Big Data" integration is the futuristic part of the Continental plan, and a separate project with IBM, said Bolton. He added that Continental's current objective is to get to a semi-autonomous drive vehicle using Big Data for traffic management—an advanced version of what is done by the system for the city of Los Angeles.

Although Google is promising a driverless car out of the demonstration stage sometime in the 2017-2019 period, the car makers are being more cautious. They are predicting some semi-autonomous drive models in the 2020-2025 period.

On-board WiFi

In the interim, there is gradual introduction of the electromechanical building blocks to semi-autonomous drive and steady improvement in the controlling software—and connectivity also is being upgraded. General Motors is installing Wi-Fi hot-spot capability across the board in its OnStar systems. Press one of the OnStar buttons, ask for WiFi settings and with a subscription, a WiFi password is displayed on the control head screen.

Hyundai is proving that even Apple and Google can live together in the connected car—with side-by-side compatibility in the Blue Link system of the 2015 Sonata (late availability). If the motorist uses an Apple iPhone, Blue Link will bring up Apple Car Play, which includes music, navigation, and the Siri Eyes-Free "personal assistant" system. Should another driver prefer Google Android, the Android Auto screen comes up instead, with similar Google features including the Q&A. The compatibility goes across all head units, and reportedly will also appear eventually on Kia products.

These systems are in addition to all the Blue Link features that were installed to establish the factory and dealer relationship with the customer including road service, vehicle health reports, automatic collision notification, Google-powered destination search, and remote access via smartphone.

USB phone pairing

Instead of using Bluetooth to pair a phone to Blue Link, Hyundai is using a USB cable connection for both Apple IPhone and Google Androids. Hyundai said it found that problems with Bluetooth pairing were endemic and discouraging to owners, and that automatic pairing by connecting a cable from the phone to the car's USB port is a lot easier. Bluetooth isn't going away anytime soon, but Hyundai and Continental both are looking for improvements.

Could aftermarket retrofitting increase the numbers of cars that could use a road system designed for semi-autonomous driving? Yes, said John Waraniak, Vice President for Advanced Technology of SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) in an Expo presentation. But is the market there? Kyle Vogt, whose Cruise Automation Inc. is planning to sell adaptive cruise control with auto braking for upmarket cars, is a believer. His system, which he said will go on sale next year for 2012-on Audi A4/S4 at a projected price of $10,000 installed, includes GPS, millimeter-wave radar, stereo cameras, a number of sensors, and actuators for accelerator and brakes.

With car pricing so competitive, auto manufacturers can't do "future use" installations of parts; everything must deliver immediate value, perhaps with some level of upgradeability through software enhancements. So, for some degree of autonomous drive, the car makers have to continue with what they've been doing: phasing in systems that will eventually be enhanced, and adding hyper-connectivity and trustworthy security. In addition, they'll have to hope the communications infrastructure can be built to fill in the blanks.

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