driverless-cars-fig-1The auto industry has seemingly stagnated for decades, so it is quite refreshing to see the design and engineering effort going into the development of electric vehicles and self-driving cars. Even with some game-changing innovations, the automotive industry must still meet safety standards. Another challenge is creating a transportation system that will have to handle “dumb” cars, semi-automated cars, and fully driverless automobiles. Growing the IoT in the transportation market will be a long-term process, but in the end, the majority of nodes in the transportation realm of the Internet of Things will be our personal automobiles.

For now, automobiles might connect to the Internet to perform tasks we rely on smartphones to do. Built-in navigation systems benefit from real-time traffic information. Car entertainment systems are capable of piping in video streaming services and commonly do so with audio from wireless internet sources. Vehicles that automatically send status reports regarding traffic and vehicle health are already members of the IoT. A basic rule of membership is that connectivity must be built into the car instead of relying on a smartphone connection. And this is how IoT is creeping into our daily lives.

IoT will allow for even greater conveniences such as the ability to send reminders to the driver when they leave the lights on or th
e doors unlocked, remote vehicle start, or the ability to remotely roll the windows up before a storm. Is this IoT? Yes; and connectivity to the internet of things is something that we already take for granted.

The phrase “reduce waste, loss and cost,” is something of a mantra to the automotive sector, so, together with silicon vendors that supply the in
dustry, auto manufacturers are among the most enthusiastic proponents of the IoT. One key driver for this enthusiasm is the opportunity to introduce cost-saving measures such as performing “over-the-air” updates to the car’s software – particularly in key components such as the engine management unit (EMU). This could allow critical modifications to be made without the cost of recalling potentially millions of vehicles.

But whatever the motivation for the automotive companies, the addition of IoT to the car will also be a boon for consumers. Beyond simple conveniences created by automotive IoT, an always-connected automobile will be able to send an alert to a parent’s smartphone if it detects that a child has been accidentally left unattended in the backseat.

The connected car will be able to benefit from intelligent transport systems (ITS) combining inter- and intra-vehicular communication, smart traffic control, electronic toll collection, vehicle control, as well as safety and road assistance, among many others.

Driverless Cars Merge onto the Internet Superhighway Figure 2
Figure 1: The Mercedes Benz driverless concept car displayed at the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in May 2015, Shanghai China.

Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) communications are a means to ensure safety. Should one car have to brake rather suddenly, it can communicate that fact to nearby vehicles using something referred to as distributed intelligence via a Field Area Network. A wireless mesh network of connected cars creates a mass of connected intelligence that can someday allow traffic control and communication on a large scale to preempt multiple car pileups in fog, for instance. This of course, depends on how many cars are equipped to take advantage of the local shared intelligence by anticipating trouble. In more ordinary circumstances, connected cars will be able to supply information about location, speed and direction, allowing powerful servers to analyze traffic flow, predict bottlenecks, and manage congestion when jams do occur. Inside the car, drivers will be warned about impending problems and advised of alternative clear routes. Outside the car, congestion-easing techniques directed by computers harnessing large amounts of data will include variable speed limits, smart traffic lights and signage, reversible or high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) road flow, and variable toll pricing. Rudimentary systems already exist by measuring traffic flow using roadside monitoring or buried-inductive loops, but information coming directly from connected cars will offer more precise information, in real time.

While solving congestion is undoubtedly beneficial to driver sanity and a country’s economy, safety remains the number one priority for car makers and traffic authorities. So it is not surprising that these organizations are looking for ways to leverage the IoT to make driving safer. Robust sensors and technologies such as Light Detection And Ranging (LIDAR) combined with real-time processing capabilities will be required to ensure the safety-critical aspects of automated vehicles. IoT seems like something of the future when spoken of in general, but in fact most major auto manufacturers have been working on the prerequisite technologies for years. Avoiding accidents in the first place is the best way to eliminate injuries and fatalities, and engineers are working on systems that take the concept of congestion avoidance a step further by lowering the risk of collisions using real-time information about how others on the road are driving. Going a step further, drivers could be warned of approaching ambulances, poor performers, or car chases with in-car notification. Amber alerts in the U.S. are already an option for smart phone notifications as a public service announcement of an abduction involving a specific vehicle.

The transportation grid will benefit from the full impact of IoT technologies to alleviate traffic jams, improve safety, save energy, and reduce pollution. Traffic congestion burns fuel (2.9 billion gallons per year in the U.S.) and adds to atmospheric greenhouse gases (to the tune of 56 billion pounds of CO2 each year.) Wasted fuel and lost work time cost the U.S. an estimated $124 billion in 2013 according to a report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research and INRIX. According to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, U.S. commuters waste about 38 hours per year stuck in traffic. The connected car can predict drive time based on real-time traffic data. For the public sector, it means more detailed historic traffic pattern data with which to plan future infrastructure.

The infrastructure itself will also be able to communicate with passing connected cars. Street lighting can be controlled by passing cars to turn on only as traffic approaches. The infrastructure itself will inform the vehicle of changing road conditions so that the driver or vehicle can take appropriate action. Imagine the ability to set the maximum speed on vehicles as it passes through a school or construction zone. This is the promise of so-called vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2X) technologies. Sensors embedded in the car will help municipal and state public works departments monitor the health of their road and bridge infrastructure. Microsoft Research is looking at this possibility with their TrafficSense program that will detect potholes and report them using an internet connection, currently via smartphone. Data, collected from everything everywhere, will drive life changing technology enabled by the IoT.

The European Union (EU) is taking a leading role in moving the connected car from concept to reality. Two European standards organizations, European Telecommunication Standard Institute (ETSI) and the European Committee for Standardization (Comité Européen de Normalisation or CEN) confirmed last year that the basic set of standards to make connected cars a reality are complete. These standards ensure that vehicles made by different manufacturers will be able to communicate with each other. The EU states that all new cars are expected to have built-in technology that will allow them to automatically call emergency services if the worst happens. If the car’s occupants are not conscious, the technology will provide the vehicle’s location to emergency services. The system will also convey vital information to the emergency services such as the make and model of vehicle, crash location, fuel type used, and even the number of seat belts fastened at the time of the crash.

While the car itself may form a “thing” on the Internet, the various systems and subsystems will generate the information that will be of most value to the IoT. A good way to consider a vehicle’s IoT connectivity is to consider the car as a large hub to which all the systems and subsystems of the vehicle link in order to send and receive information to the wider network. Today, the computational power and intelligence required to take the raw data from systems in the car, send it in a form that’s useful to external servers, and then receive and disseminate information coming back, resides in the central vehicle gateway. But in the near future automotive sensors could include technology that will allow communication to servers in the cloud directly, using the gateway simply as a “dumb” forwarding device. Software such as Bluetooth v4.1 (which includes a low-power variant “Bluetooth low energy” suitable for wireless sensors) already includes foundation technology that will lead to wireless sensors with their own IP addresses communicating directly with remote devices on the Internet.

Big companies are willing to spend big money on what many anticipate to be a huge market, with Cisco recently putting out an estimated figure of $19-trillion in combined public and private sector value to be generated over the next decade. Freescale Semiconductor is also backing automotive IoT, putting its focus on Linux and Android operating systems as the basis of future vehicle software and suggesting the i.MX family of automotive application processors are a good solution for vehicle network applications.

The IoT differs from the traditional Internet by replacing the main source of data input (humans) with computers, machines and sensors. Such a development ensures the physical world is intimately interfaced to the Internet without the need for human intervention. The promise of IoT, in a nutshell, is creating the “quantified world.” IoT is simply the net that catches all the seemingly disparate data points that help us model every nuance of factors that impact our lives. But unlike humans––who make mistakes and get bored––systems dedicated to the job of gathering data allow us to predict (and react to) the world around us without error or fatigue.

These technical challenges, while significant today, can be overcome with investment in research and development. The greater challenge is how to make use of the global consciousness that will arise when so much is interconnected. Will this make our lives easier or better? The answer is likely to be the same as whether computers have made our lives easier or better.

Some may perceive of the Internet of Things as a fad driven by pent up demand for investment and innovation. On the other hand, the concept of IoT may simply evolve to the point that it becomes woven into day-to-day reality of life. Kevin Ashton, the man who coined the term “Internet of Things” in 1999, now wishes he had called it the “Internet for Things.” This subtle difference in wording illustrates that if successful, the Internet of Things will lose its distinction and transparently be a part of daily life. People will be better equipped to live in an increasingly complex world empowered by many interlocking technologies, an idea which (if we remember) we will have called the Internet of Things.

By Mouser Electronics

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