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Data highway: Autonomous vehicles and the connectivity challenge

Dr Bryan Marshall, Head of IoT and AV Technology at Nominet, discusses the challenging road to our connected transportation future.

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An occasional series of vendor perspectives on the world of connected business.

The global autonomous vehicle market is expected to grow at a rate of almost 40 percent from 2019 to 2026, as the technology and software rapidly progress, adding $7 trillion to the global economy.

Familiarity is also growing, with at least 46 companies worldwide – including Tesla and Alphabet – developing self-driving cars. Here in the UK, activity such as the DRIVEN project (which I am involved with) is getting connected autonomous vehicles (CAVs) on the road more regularly as we explore the realities of deploying the technology which could save 600,000 lives by 2045.

However, one of the key remaining challenges is data sharing. CAVs sit at the heart of a smart transport system that could help tackle issues such as congestion, pollution and social exclusion. Data is the fuel for this system, but it must be shared in order to provide power.

Data traffic jams

The many high-quality sensors on CAVs constantly collect data on everything from hyper-local weather to the quality of roadside lighting. This information is vital to the work of all stakeholders in the system: councils, insurers, car manufacturers, software developers, emergency services and national transport bodies, to name a few.

The ideal is attractive – a seamlessly connected transport system that works for a community and country – but the realities of sharing CAV data, whether in an open manner or privately between trusted parties, is far from straightforward.

Some of the fundamental issues are technical, from identifying what datasets are available and the size of that data, to the wireless connections suitable for transmission.

Connectivity becomes a challenge in such cases because the data can be phenomenally large, with terabytes captured from vehicle sensors every day. The current 4G networks cannot handle these types of loads, especially considering the UK roads have over 30 million vehicles on them.

Regardless of the rapid onset and promise of 5G networks, data optimisation will always be needed, but will be shaped initially by operational and regulatory requirements. Unfortunately, sharing data for the ‘greater good’ will tend to be last on the priority list.

The long road ahead

But then there may be good reasons for reticence over data sharing. The security of CAVs is obviously a big concern for operators and manufacturers keen to avoid opening up new attack vectors. Commercial entities will want to minimise commercially-sensitive data (that may appear innocuous to you or I) falling into the hands of competitors.

This could result in any shared data being so aggregated and watered down, it struggles to be of use in an external context.

We must also consider the regulatory conditions now affecting data sharing. Manufacturers and service operators are obliged to follow GDPR rules on data privacy, but this could undermine the effectiveness of the smart transport system.

For example, revealing vehicle journeys may lead to an individual being identified, but having knowledge of a planned journey in advance could be one of the most useful pieces of data for a future urban transport system. This information would enable operators to dynamically load balance networks to a much finer degree than today, reducing congestion issues.

A path through these muddy complications will have to come from legislation and regulation around data sharing. This, in turn, must be informed by a consultation process that includes cross-industry perspectives to allow for the multi-stakeholder nature of CAV development and deployment.

The Law Commission’s recent consultation paper highlighted many areas for development of data retention policies but, considering some autonomous vehicles can generate 1TB of data per hour, any final regulations will have deep practical and commercial implications.

To help support any policy decisions, we also need more use cases to demonstrate the importance and potential of sharing data. For instance, Transport for London’s open data release unlocked up to £130m each year in economic benefits and savings, not to mention improving the journeys of millions of transport users daily.

Examples like this help to demonstrate the superior benefits that data sharing can bring and the potential of smarter transport systems, provided we have the infrastructure to support them.

Technology is producing the innovative raw materials we need to transform transport systems the world over, but only if we create the necessary conditions to support full deployment.

Let’s hope that 2019 is the year in which we recognise the necessity and power of data within a connected transport system that pivots around CAVs, and start building the regulation and digital infrastructure we need.

Read more about Nominet’s work with connected autonomous vehicles here.

Internet of Business says: This opinion piece has been provided by Nominet, and not by our independent editorial team.

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