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The importance of network standardization in the age of connected cars

We see it with Wi-Fi, PCs and electrical plug outlets. With smartphones and file formats. Even screwdrivers, nuts and bolts.

All of these are governed by a common set of standards that reduce confusion, make integration easier, save money and assure all parties involved are happy.

Naturally, connected cars will need to follow suit, because the key to their success is getting them all “talking.” And because connected car systems will roll out in phases, today’s automakers need to design cars that are testable and can be updated as needed.

Speaking the same language

One word often thrown around when talking about technology standardization is “interoperability.” That’s the process whereby systems exchange and make use of data. With autonomous technology, that involves cars communicating with each other about speed, braking status and road obstructions — to avoid crashes. Interoperability only works if there’s a standard network on which it performs. In this case, it will require cars to be outfitted with compatible software and speak through a common tongue (if you will).

The Department of Transportation (DoT) has long talked about standardizing the language around vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology. Its initiative, which hasn’t been finalized yet, would require new vehicles to be equipped with V2V systems in the coming years. By working with manufacturers and incorporating public feedback, V2V systems could be clearly defined from the get-go. Doing so, the DoT argues, would ensure the safe deployment of autonomous cars as well as drive innovation.

It would also provide a mandate to brace today’s vehicles for our connected future.

Future-proofing today’s cars

In the age of IoT, people expect rapid innovations, and cars have come to figure more prominently in the conversation. But unlike with smartphones, say, which we upgrade every two-and-a-half years on average, most of us keep our cars for 10-plus years. That’s where future-proofing comes into play.

The challenge is for automakers to assure consumers can upgrade their cars as needed instead of being coerced into buying the newest models every time they come out. How? By making current in-car technology upgradeable. With swappable technologies, cars can continue getting smarter, even as they get older.

Connected cars are expected to generate terabytes of data an hour. Currently, networks can only support basic telematics.

Luckily, an Internet Protocol (IP) over Ethernet backbone architecture enables manufacturers to seamlessly update in-car systems with new devices, sensors and IoT technologies without starting from scratch every time. Having a standardized IP over Ethernet in place also allows automakers to test new connected features and quickly make adjustments. That means companies can roll out new features sooner than later.

We’ve seen some significant strides in future-proofing already.

Back in 2013, Audi partnered with Qualcomm to create an in-car 4G LTE wireless broadband. It also equipped models with swappable hardware for new features. Similarly, Tesla’s proven the vanguard with over-the-air software updates. These enable car owners to access new autonomous features without having to go to a dealership. And Dekra, a car-inspection company, launched a research site dedicated to vehicle and infrastructure testing as part of its future-proofing initiative.

But with all this talk about standards, another question remains: Whose standards will we adopt?

The ethics of standardization

Remember Uber and Waymo’s legal brouhaha back in February? It reflected the high stakes involved in the race to see who’ll make it to the top first. But it also exemplified another issue — lack of communication between companies.

The integral force behind connected cars is that they’re connected. They’re in constant communication with each other. But what if Waymo cars can’t communicate with Uber’s? Or if Ford’s fleet speaks a different language than Tesla’s? Some fear that whichever company waves the flag first will set the score.

After all, consumers will likely opt for the safest connected car. And the safest connected cars might be those with the most corporate sponsors, the most data and the largest fleet on the road. That means consumers will buy from the most popular brand. As a result, that brand might limit connective compatibility with other brands to flex its hold on the market. That’s where monopolies are born: options become limited and prices go up.

This raises some questions around standardization. Should the safest cars have to share their technology and research, or will they be given sole custody of our roads? And if there is government intervention, might inferior technology be weeded out in the name of safety, thereby limiting competition?

The DoT’s aforementioned mission to create pliant, scalable standards far in advance could be the antidote — at least in part. With flexible, clearly defined guidelines in place, there’d be less ambiguity around how companies build their systems. Plus, the DoT would have a direct role in how those guidelines continue to evolve. If standardization is based on the consensus of different parties involved, then a concerted effort might be our best bet.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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