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Car Connectivity Lost

Car Connectivity Lost
by Roger C. Lanctot on 12-01-2016 at 12:00 pm

 The frustration in the room was palpable yesterday at the annual Vehicle Connectivity Workshop gathering of the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA). The prospect of dedicated short range communication (DSRC) technology achieving its long-sought mandate to connect cars and infrastructure hung tantalizingly over the crowd like mistletoe. Meanwhile speakers touted the merits of competing and complementary wireless connections – with an emphasis on 5G cellular.

Unspoken for much of the meeting, though, was the major disconnect between the wireless, intelligent transportation (ITS), information technology and automotive industries – to say nothing of disconnected insurance and regulatory interests. All of these parties were well represented at the gathering but, as always, they talked past one another and a chance to achieve true alignment was missed once again.

I’ll state the underlying conflict in simple terms. Wireless carriers don’t understand car companies and car companies can’t stand wireless carriers.

It comes down to motivations. Everyone is motivated by profit. Car companies are primarily interested in extracting revenue from wireless connections in cars. Wireless carriers are primarily interested in extracting revenue from car companies and their customers. These objectives are in conflict, though they do not have to be.

Meanwhile, the ITS community is interested in using wireless technology to improve vehicle throughput at toll plazas and high-occupancy-vehicle lanes. Regulators and insurance companies are interested in reducing rising highway fatality levels. Startups and Silicon Valley types are interested in disruption.
The prospect of enabling connections between cars, regardless of the technology to be used, means car companies will have to cooperate with one another on application development for the first time. It is not at all clear how that will work with DSRC technology. Using cellular technology will introduce wireless carriers as a unifying force – a role carriers will increasingly play as the world of interconnected things continues to emerge.

This new post-IoT world will also elevate the role of IT companies – Oracle, IBM, HP, Microsoft and Amazon. Not all of these voices were represented at the TIA gathering.

I don’t hold TIA responsible for the failure to calm the waters and part the clouds hanging over vehicle connectivity. I blame the car makers.

The onset of 5G connectivity in cars and the reality of LTE connectivity already in cars has shifted connectivity responsibility into a cross carlines responsibility. Some car companies treat connectivity as a crash response priority, others treat it as a source of monetize-able Wi-Fi connections, still others want to use vehicle connectivity for promotional and marketing opportunities.

At the forefront of the conversation yesterday was the prospect of 5G connections enabling enhanced security, over-the-air software updates and automated driving. All of these use cases will transform the industry and they suggest that the wireless connection in the car will soon be touching all departments from powertrain to safety to infotainment, marketing, customer relationship management, finance and dealer relations.

But even sorting all of that out leaves vehicle-to-infrastructure and vehicle-to-pedestrian connections unaddressed. The companies building the roads and bridges are at a loss in trying to gain traction with the correct auto industry execs. This holds true for smart city initiatives and mobility as a service strategies. No one knows who to talk to and there does not appear to be a single executive at any car maker with comprehensive responsibility for defining the connectivity vision.

European car makers have made the greatest strides here by nominating executives with such titles as “chief digitalization officer” or the like. Talk with one of these executives and he or she will run down a Trump-sized list of teams and initiatives over which they are responsible. It’s too much for a single man or woman – and profit motives still sadly take precedent over safety.

It all comes down to infrastructure. I participated in the event on a panel with Chrisopher Bluemle of Crown Castle. Chris’ selection to participate in the event was a clever one not only because his company is responsible for tower and fiber optic infrastructure enabling the connections we are so keen to create, but also because his background is finance. Unfortunately, the financing of the backbone of vehicle connectivity is likely to come from all of our wireless bills – which will probably be less than if it came out of our taxes.

There was no consensus in the room regarding DSRC vs. 5G yesterday. This debate will rage on. But the bigger question is whether wireless carriers, car companies, ITS infrastructure companies and IT providers can find sufficient common ground to craft an effective strategy for guiding automated vehicle development.

This is not about taking sides. It’s about assigning responsibility appropriately with the goal of saving lives. The next move is up to the car makers. This was the one constituency insufficiently represented in the presentations and panel discussions. The one dominant auto-maker voice came from Dr. Gary Smyth, executive director Global R&D Laboratories of General Motors.

Smyth is a fierce but friendly advocate of DSRC. He firmly planted the DSRC flag as the focal point of the TIA gathering. The event concluded with word of President-elect Trump’s appointment of a new Department of Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao, but no word regarding DSRC rule making.

Rule making and regulators won’t solve the various connected vehicle disconnections. Only inter-industry and intra-industry cooperation can solve this problem. Perhaps the best news emerging from the TIA event was the creation of the 5GAA (5G Automotive Association) which is bringing together car makers, carriers, and infrastructure partners. AT&T, Verizon, Ford, Denso and others are expected to soon join Audi, Daimler, BMW, Qualcomm, Ericsson, Huawei, and Vodafone already involved. Perhaps the clouds will yet part for the world of connected cars. Watch this space.

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