A stumpy little airport shuttle bus is New Zealand’s first autonomous vehicle. But we need a whole infrastructure and 5G cellular technology before a driverless future arrives, writes Nikki Mandow.
Driverless cars are big business. In June, there were no less than 27 companies working with self-driving technology in the test-bed state of California – companies like Google, Uber, Tesla and some of the big car manufacturers. Computer chip-maker Intel recently offered US$15 billion for Mobileye, an Israeli autonomous vehicle technology firm. And the California Department of Motor Vehicles has just proposed new regulations to finally prepare for moving from testing to the commercialisation of driverless cars.
In New Zealand, we had our first driverless vehicle trial in January this year – it involved a stumpy little shuttle bus at Christchurch Airport. But development of the much touted self-driving vehicle industry, along with its related benefits (anything from fewer accidents, to better mobility for blind and elderly people, to reduced road and parking congestion, to being able to legally text on the commute home) needs more than the arrival of a load of self-driving vehicles at a Kiwi port. It needs a whole load of infrastructure to support it.
Nikki Mandow talked to Chorus’s network technology strategist, Kurt Rodgers, and the New Zealand Transport Agency’s director of connected journeys, Martin McMullan, about what New Zealand needs to do to get ready for a driverless world. A warning – it’s not going to be quick and easy.
What’s the most important issue when it comes to driverless cars?
Low latency. Or, in human speak, there being only a (really) tiny delay when data gets sent or is received by the vehicle. It’s not going to work if it takes three seconds for your car to notice the boy running into the road and avoid him. You can’t have a second or two of delay receiving signals from a traffic light or an approaching bus.
Where does latency creep in?
There are lots of potential causes of latency – in-built delays in the car’s computer system, slow mobile or wireless signals, or delays caused when a vehicle is trying to communicate with a data centre that’s a long way away.
The goal for driverless cars is to get to one millisecond (one thousandth of a second) latency.
How do you get latency down?
The critical step for autonomous vehicles is the development of 5G (short for fifth generation) cellular wireless technology. We need 5G because it’s so much faster than 4G. As the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission puts it, somewhat breathlessly: “5G means seamless connectivity. Ultra-fast, ultra-reliable, ultra-high capacity transmitting at super-low latency.”
Chorus’s Kurt Rodgers was at the recent Mobile World Conference, in Barcelona, and watched demonstrations using an autonomous toy truck on a race-track. Using 4G (the present top mobile standard) the truck took a long time to respond (turning, braking etc), he says. “When they switched to 5G it drove perfectly, because 5G has much lower latency.”
So, when do we get 5G?
The problem is that 5G technology doesn’t exist yet. In fact, global technology wizards are still arguing about its specifications. No one’s anticipating 5G networks being rolled out much before 2020. (Techie people get all excited about 5G, but, to put it in perspective, there are still tens of thousands of New Zealanders using 2G phones. And you can still buy a new 3G smartphone, although 4G is better.)
Does New Zealand have the infrastructure we need for 5G?
Not yet. 5G will operate on a higher frequency (because that moves information faster) but higher frequency signals don’t travel as far as lower frequencies. And that means a lot more cell sites will need to be built to capture and transmit the data. Rodgers says we are going to need tens of thousands of small cell sites – in some places that’s going to mean a site on every street corner. That’s expensive – and we don’t yet know who’s going to build them in New Zealand.
NZTA’s Martin McMullan says it’s also critical to make sure that where possible there is ubiquitous mobile coverage on every road in New Zealand. The Government’s $50 million Mobile Black Spot Fund will go some way towards bringing at least a 3G or 4G mobile service to more of our rural roads, but we still won’t have the coverage needed for a nationwide driverless car network.
Are cell sites the only extra infrastructure we need for driverless cars?
No. To get the speeds and low latency needed for autonomous vehicles each of the new cell sites will need to be connected to the ultrafast broadband (UFB) fibre network.
The last big part of the telecommunications infrastructure puzzle involves data centres – those vast storage warehouses (often in the US) that are the backbone of the cloud. There was a time when New Zealand’s internet relied largely on overseas data centres – in the US, Singapore or Australia, for example. However, the advent of video-streaming services meant overseas storage (with its delays moving information backwards and forwards) made for a slow service. New Zealand now has a small number of
Most pundits predict that the development of driverless cars will progress i n parallel with the development of electric cars – i n tandem with the i nfrastructure of charging stations these will need.
its own data centres, mostly in the big cities.
But that’s not going to be enough to achieve the millisecond latency needed for driverless cars, says Rodgers. Even with 5G and lots of cell sites, you’re going to need lots of smaller data centres to pick up and transmit the data from all the vehicles in (almost) real time, he says.
“I talked to the guys at Intel when I was in Barcelona and they said that to get one millisecond of latency, you need data centres every 10 to 20 kilometres. That would mean having hundreds of data centres in New Zealand. The question is who is going to make that investment, particularly when we don’t yet have any certainty about when 5G is going to happen, or what the demand will be?”
Has anything happened so far?
Chorus has just signed an agreement with startup company VertIS to convert Chorus’s 200 or so former telephone exchanges into data centres. At the moment, the demand for these local data centres is around caching Netflix and other video-streaming services, but they could be used for driverless cars. The new buzzword is “fog computing” (also known as edge computing) where instead of data being stored in the cloud (a far-away data centre) it is stored much closer to the ground (ie., near the individual user). Hence “fog”.
How is Google able to test driverless cars without 5G and all the extra infrastructure?
Think of a driverless car as a robot controlled by an artificial intelligence brain. With the Google car, and other test cars, all the computing power sits in the vehicle. The sensors “see” what’s going on and the car makes decisions. But having all that processing power inside each car takes up valuable space and is very expensive. Self-driving car prototypes collect about a gigabyte of data per second – that’s the equivalent of a feature length, high-definition film’s worth of data every five seconds. The first Google cars were said to contain upwards of US$150,000 of technology, although that cost is coming down. Still, the more computing power they can shift out of the car, the cheaper the car.
What about non-telco infrastructure – what else do we need?
NZTA’s Martin McMullan says getting the transport and road sectors ready for driverless cars is a big task and will involve different sectors working together. “The transport industry is a $5.4 trillion business and it’s going to be digital in the next decade. We’ll need good, robust partnerships with public and private organisations, including those in the cellular and technology space.”
McMullan says New Zealand’s regulations are conducive to testing driverless cars and he expects to see more happening here.
Won’t we need a sensor network on our roads?
McMullan says because driverless cars are equipped with so many sensors this will reduce the need for on-road sensors. In fact, the cars of the future will be able to help NZTA with its work, he says. For example, an autonomous car that spots a pothole in a road could automatically send a message to NZTA.
Lidar Volvo uses a lidar (light detection and ranging) sensor at the top of the windscreen to monitor an area 10 metres ahead of the car looking for collision threats.