Cleantech Market Intelligence
The Internet Highway – Literally
In the United Kingdom, the independent regulator and competition authority for communications industries is known as Ofcom. It is accountable to Parliament and responsible for regulating the TV and radio sectors, fixed-line telecoms, mobile phones, postal services, and, probably most importantly, the airwaves over which wireless devices operate. It also issues licenses for operators to transmit over the wireless electromagnetic spectrum.
With the relatively recent dramatic increase in demand for wireless communications, Ofcom has determined that it needs to look at other ways to allow providers to operate. On October 2, 2013, Ofcom announced a new initiative to test the potential of using “white space” technology for wireless communications. About 20 organizations will take part in trials to see if a variety of technologies can use gaps in the frequency band used to broadcast digital terrestrial TV for other applications without interfering with existing users.
Only one of these tests involves road traffic, but that one captured the attention of the mainstream press. The headline in the Daily Telegraph rejoiced at the prospect of the A14 becoming the United Kingdom’s “first Internet-connected road,” while the Guardian concluded that the technology could help lead to self-driving cars. Apparently, an Ofcom spokesman also hinted at the potential for managing vehicle speeds on the road, which led to the Guardian journalist noting that this could “even pave the way for government systems to automatically control car speeds,” thus reviving memories of the European Union plan to put restrictions on all vehicle speeds – an idea that was discarded a few years ago, but which reared its ugly head again last month. Judging by the comments on the article, the fear of Big Brother is still alive and well.
Vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications have been in development for many years, and a wide range of wireless technologies have been evaluated, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and cellular. Dedicated short range communications is the favored technology for safety systems where immediate connection is required, but setting up such an infrastructure is proving to be prohibitively expensive. Cellular networks also require costly towers to be erected. The idea of using low-cost transmitters that can use spare capacity in the spectrum is to be applauded.
Talk to the Car
The planned test will simply demonstrate if this idea is practical, and it won’t involve taking control of anyone’s car. It will mirror similar efforts in the United States that have been underway for more than a year. The challenge right now is to test the potential for V2I to handle large quantities of data and to deliver useful information. If congestion is detected, the same wireless medium can be used to send information back to the vehicles to advise alternative routes or, perhaps, set advisory speed limits, which are currently used on some motorways in the United Kingdom to smooth out the traffic flow.
In the future, when autonomous driving is widespread, such V2I systems will be able to communicate directly with the car rather than the driver. At that point, driving will already be smoother and faster, thanks to automated systems that I described last month.