Will autonomous vehicles be the killer IoT application?

A bit of a dare, this question, you may think on reading the title. But I thought I’d take it on in as rational a way as possible

By the way, sorry for the spoiler in this second paragraph, the answer is yes.

Just as the compellingly convenient, always-reachable mobile phone swept over the world, leading some areas to even skip the landline phone phase, the autonomous vehicle will spread like wildfire over our roads, leading speedily to generations who will look at driving licences and steering wheels as we do blacksmiths and horses.

Now, please read on to see why and how I believe it to be so.

Firstly, what exactly is a killer application?

While like many, including myself, you may just have the idea that a killer application is a software program that is incredibly popular. Well, you’d be right… almost.

The other day, I was asked “what is the killer application of the smartphone?” I replied that, rather than an actual application, it was probably the set that make up personal information management (PIM), i.e.: calendar, e-mail, messaging, note taking. Merging with the phone (I mean its ability to make calls) just made the whole thing more convenient. Yes, because in the day, we used to have the two separate: a PDA and a phone. Just as we used to also have a PDA, a phone and a digital camera and an MP3 player and lots of chargers and memory cards and wires.

According to Wikipedia, a killer application is, in a nutshell, an application that is so compelling that users spend large amounts buying the host system just to be able to benefit from the application which, itself, costs much less that the host required to run it. Spreadsheets and word processing were the killer applications of PCs in the 80s and early 90s. People bought computers considering them as word-processing and spreadsheet machines.

Not a computer

If you look at the whole thing from another more general perspective, the smartphone is the killer application for wireless data service providers. And don’t they know it! How much did you pay for your first iPhone and the data plan that came with it?Qualcomm teams up with Novacom Europe

In a sentence: a killer application is one that makes you buy the (much more expensive) technology required to run it.

Right, so what exactly is IoT?

What does Wikipedia say? “The Internet of things (IoT) is the network of physical devices, vehicles, home appliances and other items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and connectivity which enables these objects to connect and exchange data.” Yes, a little vague and bewildering, isn’t it?

We could add that the internet of things relies on a few basic principles: the IoT consists of things, or objects if you like, connected to the Internet and possibly among themselves, hosting sensors and enough embedded processing power and intelligence to capture and synthesise data relevant to their environment or condition, enabling the user or system monitoring them to be able to make decisions and take actions which, otherwise, would have been much harder or even impossible to do.

For IoT to be viable, the connected objects require sufficient on-board processing power and energy to accomplish the fundamental functions they were designed for in such a way as to make economic sense and achieve a result which has value for the user or beneficiary.

Finally, once you have the required sensors or actuators, energy and intelligence, your connected thing needs to be able to function where and when required. Ubiquity is a major aspect of IoT.

So, in a sentence: IoT is connected devices that host sensors and/or actuators, a power source and enough on-board processing power and intelligence to independently accomplish the function they are designed for and where they are needed.

OK, but are autonomous vehicles an IoT application?

Wikipedia lists vehicles in the main IoT target list. Let’s see why.

A car, a van, a truck, a train or a plane is certainly a thing. They have an on-board energy source, embedded intelligence and processing power, albeit basic. A lot of them, even in their current fossil fuel-guzzling form, are becoming connected with a whole series of services that promise to revolutionise the driving experience and enhance security.

ecallThese features, however, do not make them eligible as IoT applications. What’s lacking? You guessed it: sensors!

This is where autonomous vehicles distinguish themselves so much from the traditional human-driven sort: they sense their environment, actually better than any human can. This, combined with the formidable processing power they carry (up to 320 million operations per second at the date of publication), are what make autonomous vehicles, well… autonomous.

What’s more, driverless vehicles are designed to communicate among themselves. Vehicle-to-vehicle or V2V communication is designed so that an obstacle or incident located beyond the vehicle’s sensory range can still be detected and processed thanks to an autonomous buddy further down the road who detected it first.

Of course, all the data processed by a driverless vehicle doesn’t just feed its little silicon brain. Those that are relevant to preventive maintenance, machine learning, environmental conditions and many other uses are transmitted over the air to whoever they are relevant to. While we’re talking about much higher data rates than the thermometer and door sensor in a connected fridge, there will always be an effort to minimise data rates to keep energy requirements as low as possible, preserve wireless networks from congestion and, coincidentally, keep data communication costs down.

To this end, Sensors will not be just to enable the autonomous driving, but will feed a vast array of cloud services with real-time data on traffic, road surface, temperature, weather, air quality, even crime detection.

AVs being EVs (electric vehicles), they will of course be calculating whether the on-board energy it has left is enough to take you to your requested destination or whether it should navigate itself to a recharging station.

Sensors, on-board energy (and conservation efforts), processing power and connectivity… Yes, this fits the IoT definition.

In fact, with vehicle telematics being one of the major driving forces of wireless machine-to-machine technology over the past twenty years, I’d even go so far as to say that autonomous vehicles (AVs) are the epitome of IoT.

So, why would autonomous vehicles be the killer IoT application?

Do you have a connected thermostat in your house? A connected lock? A connected smoke detector? No? Well… I’m sure more and more of us have connected electricity meters, but, yeah, we didn’t really have much choice, did we? How about connected lights? They’re fun, but hardly killer. Do you want a connected fridge? (Sweetheart, how come there’s this delivery guy with four packs of milk when we’re just about to leave for a fortnight’s vacation? A button to push to automatically order washing powder when it’s running low? Or have you been tempted by a tracking device for your bag, scooter, child…?

The killer IoT application is just not here yet.

Saving time and money

For an application to be truly a killer, it needs to save either time, money or both.

Let’s start by looking at how much time they will be saving you.

Think of it: instead of spending the average 25 minutes a typical American commuter spends driving to work (and the 25 back), relaxing and letting the car do the driving while you finish that chapter in your book, make a call or two, run through your social network posts while having a coffee or even that breakfast you always skipped in the rush not to be late. I won’t go into how autonomous vehicles will greatly relieve traffic congestion, but even if the amount of traffic didn’t decrease, no longer having to set full attention on the next craziest thing the car on your tail is about to do and keeping a clear idea of what’s going on ahead, the transport experience would be so much more enjoyable and productive.

People get all excited and make a great selling point for expensive technology to help companies gain a 5% increase in productivity. That’s a quarter of a day of a five-day working week and it is, indeed, impressive. Here, we’re talking about almost an hour a day, that’s 10% of your working day, being put to better use, on average, for everyone!

Your car spends an impressive amount of time… parked.

parked.jpgActually, if you divided the total cost of ownership of your car (that’s purchase, maintenance, fuel, insurance, parking fees, etc.) by the number of hours you spend actually in it, you’d be surprised at the cost per hour.

On average, a British car owner spends 91 hours per year looking for a place to park. Once it becomes autonomous, we can let the car do that all by itself and get a notification once it’s parked and charging over an induction plate (you don’t think we’re going to keep up the hassle of plugging them in, do you?).

Your driverless car won’t spend ages looking for a parking space, its autonomous friends may well tell it where to find one nearby, or it may just drop you off and go and find one a little further out or… earn you some extra income! That’s right. What’s the point of spending working hours idling and taking up precious urban space when someone might be needing a transport service to take them to wherever during that time? Your car gets shared and you get money back for the service.

Now, let’s take a look at the money you’ll be saving.

 To stay with the parking topic, in the USA, Inrix estimate the cost of searching for parking space at $73 billion/year! That in itself would seem a sufficient argument to adopt a transportation system that picks you up and drips you off where and when you want without the wasted time and money looking for a parking spot.

However, the humongous economic upheaval that will come with AVs goes well beyond that.

Car ownership will be superseded by pay-per-use models.

First of all, the technology required to make a car autonomous is expensive, setting the car at a price most of us probably wouldn’t fancy forking out.

Secondly, while some denounce exaggeration on statements on Millennial trends in dropping car ownership, the generations reaching the age to get a driving licence is to not be bothered about what car they own. They see it as a means of getting from A to B, not so much as a status symbol. For those who do, I’m sure there’ll be deluxe subscription plans which ensure that the cars responding to your summoning will have the leather upholstery, plush gilding and mod cons you could desire. Some will even fly.

If, just like me, you don’t have a driving license, you may be thinking: what concern is all this to me? I don’t drive anyway. Well, that’s just the point! You’ll at last be like everybody else (or should that be the opposite?), no longer needing a driving license. Visually impaired, physically handicapped, reflexes waning with age, you name it, they’ll all be hopping in and out of cars.

stockholm ez10Perhaps you’re one of those who swear that public transport is the way to go. Well, I’ll let you in on something: the first autonomous vehicles allowed to drive on open public roads are… buses.

In a future where anyone is able to summon a cheap driverless pod at the click of a smartphone button, the line between public and private transport would start to blur.

Between you and me, do you really enjoy standing up in a jolty bus with the feet of silent people stepping on yours or that lifted arm just in front of you on a hot summer afternoon? I’m a fervent public transport user and I certainly don’t. I can’t wait to be able to book a one-seater pod which will dash me off and if I’m in the mood for some socialising, I’m sure there will be plenty of car-pooling apps in which you can share the travel time with other commuters.

Like most people, beyond the regular commuting, you will be needing a car anytime, anywhere at short notice, to fetch someone, run an errand, fetch the cat food you forgot yesterday evening… Just as you can call a chauffeur-driven car today using your phone, you’ll be able to call and set schedules to have a car turn up at any time ready to take you wherever you need to go and set the in-vehicle environment with your personalised settings, such as temperature, radio station, playlist, seat height and inclination, etc. Services such as Continental’s RCK already enable this.

You can either be one of those people who just love their car too much to let it carry someone else and have to keep it nearby, meaning you can afford the parking space and the hefty ownership bill, or you may just need to nip here and there and back in whatever driverless car your carshare app flashes up as the next available to come and fetch you.

Yes, driverless cars will mostly be shared as in the scope of a VaaS (vehicle as a service) plan, so remember not leave your sunglasses in the glove compartment.

Safety will improve dramatically

AVs will not only make travelling a lot more productive, fun or restful, they will also make it a lot, and I mean a LOT safer.

For those of us thinking that in the light of the recent first fatal accident involving a fully autonomous vehicle and a pedestrian in Arizona the driverless juggernaut will be grinding to a halt, let’s not forget that the inauguration day of the first railway line between Manchester and Liverpool in England on September 15th 1830 saw the death of one of the most right honourable guests, William Huskisson, invited to experience the first thrill of what would become a technological revolution comparable to that of the Internet: the railway.huskisson

Autonomous systems are the logical extension of seat belts, air bags and anti-lock braking systems. Advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) which are on vehicles today are already saving lives. Mobileye, for example, claim to reduce accidents by 30 percent and that’s with human drivers.

Just for the record, the Tesla X that had a fatal crash on March 23rd this year in California, was not an autonomous car, but in autopilot mode which is simply extremely high driver assistance.Self Driving Cars Arizona

Road rage will be even more useless than it is today and the middle finger will be kept solely to finding that crusty bit up the left nostril.

For the long period when autonomous vehicles share the road with human drivers, the industry will need standards that definitively assign fault when collisions occur. Rick Snyder, the Governor of Michigan is working on a set of standards that define what an autonomous vehicle is.

Intel is collaborating with the industry and policymakers on how safety performance is measured and interpreted for autonomous cars. Setting clear rules for fault in advance will bolster public confidence and clarify liability risks for consumers and the automotive and insurance industries. Already, Intel and Mobileye have proposed a formal mathematical model called Responsibility-Sensitive Safety (RSS) to ensure, from a planning and decision-making perspective, the autonomous vehicle system will not issue a command leading to an accident.

The true safety benefits of autonomous vehicles will only be apparent when a critical mass is reached.

Autonomous vehicle manufacturers have their eyes firmly set on the dial that indicates the number of accidents and injuries per million miles driven and, as far as driverless cars are concerned, the figure is low to say the least.

The insurance policies covering vehicles will undergo extensive shifts and while this is perceived as a challenge by insurers, things may actually be a lot clearer than they are today as to who is liable in the case of an accident involving an AV.

As accidents will be due to machine error or interference in the interaction between the autonomous vehicle and objects, animals or humans on the road, manufacturers such as Volvo agreed very early on that insurance will be their liability. Way to go! No more car insurance premiums to pay! Sure, but we haven’t seen the subscription plan price yet, have we?

While accident liability lies with the OEMs, legislation still has to come to terms with robots interacting with humans and not just on the roads.

In-vehicle infotainment will at last have true meaning

To this day, apart from air conditioning, electric windows and panoramic rooves, the inside of cars hasn’t evolved much and remains pretty boring for passengers. Interior design will be the focus. Infotainment, until now contradictory with the attention required to drive, will take on its full meaning.

infotainmentOn business trips you’ll be able to sit and quietly get on with your work, punctuated with video conferences and calls you can take and make without worrying about road safety regulations. Or, you may want to recline in a comfortable seat and listen to whatever you find relaxing, or catch up on ant video entertainment you feel like.

In fact, my bet is that autonomous vehicles alone will be sufficient reason for telecom operators to deploy 5G networks as densely and widely as possible.

Imagine going on a holiday trip and being able to enjoy the film in the back with the kids (the seats should swivel) or just taking in the scenery, catching up on the latest match or checking what good restaurants there are around the destination.

Once you’ve tasted autonomous driving, you won’t want to look back. You’ll want it so much, you’ll be forking out whatever it costs to get that sedan with large screens, surround hi-fi and fully reclining seats, or will you? You may not yet be fully convinced that autonomous vehicles will be the killer IoT application but read on to see what may bring the kill factor beyond the tipping point.

So when do we get to travel in them?

I suggest looking at this with the clutch, brake and accelerator approach. The clutch being what we can already clutch onto, the brake being what is slowing adoption and the accelerator being what will speed it up.

The true ignition key is data.

The clutch is the technology that is already out there, deployed and being driven over all sorts of roads in many countries. The likes of Waymo, Uber, Tesla, Volvo, General Motors, etc. are all running vehicles in semi-autonomous or sometimes just in the normal human driver mode, collecting petaflops of data that enable them to replay scenarios and improve vehicle reactions to different situations. Just as a formula 1 car sends real-time technical data to the engineering team so that they can improve and fine tune each mechanical and aerodynamic feature, connected (not just driverless) vehicles are constantly delivering feedback. This is truly big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence in the nitty gritty of driving a vehicle with all the unexpected events happening and deciding on how to manage the “death by robot” scenarios in which someone will necessarily die.

Collecting enough data, processing it and turning it into algorithm improvements takes time.

pitfallThe main brake (handbrake?) is legislation. While the USA and Europe see the huge industrial and economic potential behind driverless vehicles and are, therefore encouraging digital transformation (just as Huskisson did in his time), law making is a slow process. On country or State level, initiatives are being taken.

The second most important brake is security. Not security as in safety, because, despite the inevitable accidents in the trial phases, most people accept that autonomous vehicles will make our roads much safer, but as in cyber protection. This is actually where the insurance industry will be shifting its focus to: where does liability lie when a fatal accident occurs in the scope of cyber-hijacking? We wouldn’t want the term “killer” application to be taken literally, would we?

The accelerator is the overall awareness that AVs are coming, perhaps faster than initially thought (2025? 2030?) and of the true benefits that they will bring. Contrary to smartphones which spent years in the early-adopter phase before an ingenious mind brought together the compelling elements under the umbrella of user-friendliness that provoked massive adoption in 2007, an autonomous vehicle cannot be just usable. Having to reboot to get out of a freeze is just not going to happen, because a software freeze is out of the question. Manufacturers know this and they’re applying their resources to make sure that, when they do hit the road, AVs will just wave sceptical comments out of the window. Hence, as was the case with the first trains, politicians, engineers and financers are all focused on making this revolution happen.

Killer IoT application or not, I’m dying for my first ride in one!


About James Newton
James Newton, a British bi-cultural who has lived in France for a large part of his life, has been working in the IT industry in fields related to mobile computing, machine-to-machine (M2M), the Internet of Things (IoT) and mapping applications for over 20 years. His in-depth experience in the development and implementation of solutions with large corporations specialised in fields varying from hotel management through waste collection optimisation to World-wide minute-by-minute tracking of aircraft parts has led him to become one of Europe’s most renowned experts in the industry. James has held senior business positions with leading M2M and IoT players ans is now head of the successful international business development compnay, Synchrologix. --- James Newton, Britannique, biculturel, qui a vécu en France pour une grande partie de sa vie, travaille dans les applications de l’industrie informatique associées à la mobilité, au machine-to-machine (M2M) à l'Internet des Objets (IoT) et aux systèmes d'information géographique depuis plus de 20 ans. Son expérience approfondie dans le développement et la mise en œuvre de solutions avec de grands groupes spécialisés dans des domaines allant de la gestion d'hôtels, en passant par la collecte de déchets jusqu'au suivi mondial de pièces d’avion, fait de lui l’un des experts les plus reconnus de l’industrie. James a occupé des postes de Senior Business Executive chez des acteurs reconnus des domaines de l'IoT et du M2M et dirige aujourd'hui une société spécialisée dans le bsuiness development international.

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