As engineers around the world work to make the self-driving car a practical reality, one of the biggest challenges still faced is how to precisely locate where those vehicles are in space at any moment in time. This is especially important in scenarios where the sensors can’t actually see the road—for example, when it is snowing. One potential approach to the problem would be to turn traffic signals, street lamps, and utility poles into beacons that could be used to more precisely triangulate position.
As outlined in Navigant Research’s Transportation Outlook: 2025-2050 report from 2Q 2016, a primary application of autonomous vehicles is likely to be providing autonomous mobility on-demand services in urban environments. As more of the world’s population moves into cities in the coming decades, those urban centers are likely to grow both out and up toward the sky. However, while skyscrapers allow more people to live in the same land mass, they also create problems for the satellite-based location systems such as the American GPS, Russian GLONASS, and European GALILEO.
As the low-power signals that are broadcast from satellite constellations bounce off buildings in urban canyons, errors are generated. Current generation systems only have about 5 meters of precision, which is fine for general navigation purposes, but inadequate for an autonomous vehicle that needs to make decisions about where it should be on a given road to make an upcoming turn.
This is where a new localized position system could be beneficial. Go down the street in any developed city in the world and you will find poles sticking out of the ground every few hundred feet at most. These poles are owned and maintained by utilities, municipal lighting departments, telecommunications providers, and others that connect and power the modern world. Equipping these poles with wireless beacons could enable them to be used for much more precise geolocation than is currently possible.
In 2013, Apple introduced support for its iBeacon technology into the iPhone and iPad. Small beacons using Bluetooth low energy can be used to provide location indoors or out, enabling retailers to track where customers are lingering in stores and food vendors to deliver orders in crowded stadiums. Similar technology could be harnessed on the road to locate vehicles.
In early 2016, Ford conducted the first test of its autonomous Fusion prototypes on snow-covered roads at a Michigan test facility. The car was able to navigate by triangulating landmarks that had previously been mapped out using LIDAR. While this approach worked well enough when the test car was the only vehicle on the track, it could be problematic in a city where the same landmarks could be blocked from the LIDAR’s view by other vehicles or objects. An approach using location beacons would achieve a similar effect in combination with high definition maps while eliminating the line-of-sight problem.
Equipping urban utility poles with beacons could provide the owners of these poles with the first step toward full vehicle-to-infrastructure communications and potentially a mechanism to deploy a variety of other revenue generating services. For example, vehicles equipped with cameras for either driver assist or autonomous systems could be used to gather data about available parking spaces. That could then be fed into a reservation system allowing drivers to find and pay for parking before arriving at the location. The data providers could then get a share of the revenue generated from that service.
The first deployments of these beacons could be done in the next few years as vehicle-to-external communications rolls out in new vehicles followed by 5G wireless systems in the early 2020s.