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29 May 2015

Connected cars have “grave implications” for mobile networks

Industry alliances pile up around the connected car, as mobile players look to get the biggest brands on-side for their operating systems, connectivity or services. The past few days alone have seen partnerships announced between Huawei and Audi, Ericsson and Volvo, and between Qualcomm and Daimler.

But while the IVI (in-vehicle infotainment) and safety services start to evolve towards driverless cars and intelligent trains, all this progress is also threatening new risks to the mobile networks. The rising number of connected cars could have “grave implications”, according to a study by Machina Research, which predicts that some cells could experience a 97% increase in data traffic and signalling over the next decade, especially at busy hours like ‘drive time’.

Admittedly the research was commissioned by network assurance and analytics provider Teoco, whose tools presumably seek to mitigate these risks, but the report makes the fair claim that traffic generated by vehicles must not be assumed to be the same as that from smartphones. Patterns of usage will be different because cars tend to be on the road in large numbers at certain times; mobile hand-off is challenging in fast vehicles and trains; and there will be new applications which generate high levels of signalling, even if their data loads are low.

Operators are very sensitive about signalling loads since this factor – virtually ignored in the 3G era – caused several high profile network outages a few years ago, affecting MNOs which usually have a high reputation for network reliability, such as NTT Docomo in Japan and Verizon in the US. Those damaging failures prompted a new look at how modern mobile usage – especially, in that case, social networking and push email – creates different strains on the network compared to traditional downloads and email. Applications which constantly poll the network to announce their presence, such as social updates, may not carry high data loads, but can create considerable stress on the signalling systems, and the same will be true of some vehicular services.

“Connected cars, like other M2M devices, don’t behave like smartphones,” said Matt Hatton, CEO of Machina. “They represent a very diverse set of challenges to operators through highly varying network traffic patterns at different times of the day. In terms of overall data volumes, they don’t present much of a problem. But network resource management is not based on total traffic volume, it’s based on particular cell sites during peak times of network use.

Steve Bowker, VP of technology and strategy at Teoco, added that MNOs will “need to more seriously consider how to cope with these demands for reduced latency, higher bandwidth, more signalling and higher QoS.” That, according to Machina, will involve adopting dynamic optimization tools which can also handle unlicensed spectrum, and also new device management approaches, with “robust” certification processes for new connections.

The challenges are not deterring the development of connected car services, as operators look for new revenue streams, and as auto makers and mobile platforms tussle to control the driver’s and passenger’s user experiences. According to Machina, cars already account for about half of global machine-to-machine traffic over cellular networks and expect that 50% figure to remain stable in a growing pie.

Among the most recent partnerships, Huawei has added German car manufacturer Audi to its list of allies. The Chinese firm’s LTE modules will be tested in the new Audi Q7 SUV, providing the vehicle with access to 2G, 3G and both TDD and FDD LTE connectivity.

Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei’s consumer business group, said in a statement: “We see unlimited opportunities available in the interconnected car market. By partnering with industry leading automobile companies like Audi, Huawei aims to … promote interaction between cars, smartphones, wearables and people, creating a seamless communication experience and driving environment.”

Meanwhile, Ericsson revealed it was working with Volvo to implement the ITS4Mobility intelligent transport system in Latin America. The vendor will customize Volvo’s system with traffic management and passenger information capabilities that address the specific needs of that region.

And Qualcomm has announced a strategic collaboration with Daimler, which in its first phase will focus on equipping future vehicles with 3G/4G connectivity, in-vehicle wireless charging, the Qualcomm Halo Wireless Electric Vehicle Charging (WEVC) technology, and the US firm’s new Automotive Solutions platform, based on the Snapdragon chips.

“It’s important that we remain on the cutting edge of technology and continue to deliver unparalleled experiences to our customers,” said Professor Thomas Weber, member of the board of management of Daimler.