HANDS OFF

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.

Idealog - - IDEALOG / CHORUS -

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.

Any­thing else?

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.

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