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Autonomous vehicles supporting futuristic infrastructures

The world of automotive today buzzes with three words, electric cars, car sharing or licensing and autonomous cars. It is pretty interesting to see the way the world is shaping up to accommodate these trends and how these trends are actually shaping up because of the direction in which the human civilization is headed.

Charging Station networks, Charging point protocol

Owing to the current emission standards and the increasing environmental awareness, electric cars and hydrogen fuel cell cars is where the future of the automotive industry lies.

Electric cars did leave a very interesting opportunity for the markets from which to pick; the opportunity of a well spread and dense charging station network. This opportunity has been picked up by the Chargepoint network, which is a platform bringing together automotive companies which are now making their own charging station networks. But any network of this sort works only if the electric car of every car company can be charged at the charging station of any company. This is where the German automotive giants are headed. It is a win-win situation for all the automotive companies. The protocol at the interface of the charging point and the vehicle itself is being worked upon by the German Automotive giants and they are joining hands to come up with a common solution.

It is bizarre then that Tesla stands out from this ecosystem; its Supercharge stations are proprietary and cars of other automotive companies cannot just plug into them. Also, it is noteworthy that the Tesla supercharge stations charging is free of charge, which is actually accounted for already in the premium pricing of the Tesla cars. Interestingly, Tesla is expressing its will to make its super charge stations available for use by the other automotive company cars too. If this happens will Tesla lose its single best unique selling proposition (USP) of free supercharge stations networks or can it go for a differential pricing model by charging the non-Tesla cars only? It is in this kind of a differential pricing scenario that the charging interface protocols will actually be useful; this protocol can have control signals which can help the charging station identify the company of the electric car to decide whether or not the charging is free or will be paid by the user. This protocol will be similar to most other protocols today, like the USB protocol, with the most important part being the handshake of the two parties involved. There are questions which still remain unanswered but the answers will be unveiled soon.

Figure 1

An eElectric car at a charging station; the interface of the car and the charge point is where the protocol is important

An eElectric car at a charging station; the interface of the car and the charge point is where the protocol is important

Smart grids, V2G energy transfer from electric cars

Another intriguing development around electric cars is that of smart grids, smart cities and Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) energy transfer. That is, a world in which the electric cars like any other electric entity connected to the smart grid can not only take power from the grid but also give power back to it. This way the electric car, when idle and sitting in its parking area or garage, can return power to the grid and aid in bearing peak loads. Refer Figure 2 for a better understanding of V2G in a smart grid.

Figure 2

Electric cars connected to a smart grid can get charged and also return charge to the grid

Electric cars connected to a smart grid can get charged and also return charge to the grid

High Definition maps, over and above GPS in Autonomous cars

A high-definition map is another area which needs addressing when it comes to autonomous cars. A high definition map helps an autonomous car know its surroundings with the precision of within a few centimeters as compared to a GPS which is precise only to 5 meters. Not only this, there could be conditions when the cameras, RADAR, LIDAR, or ultrasonic sensors in an autonomous car cannot recognize an object, for instance when the object is snow-covered. HD maps will then help the car know its surroundings and remain safe. Companies like Google, TomTom, and HERE are developing their own HD maps, depth maps precisely and are in a commanding position. One would find it noteworthy that even the CTO of Ford recognizes that not having HD maps would be a major hurdle in the path of autonomous cars.

The German automotive giants BMW, AUDI and Daimler AG came together to form the German consortium to collectively own HERE. But this problem still remains unsolved for many automotive companies. One thought which has not crossed the mind of many players is that there could be a crowd sourcing model for HD map. Today there are millions of semi-automated cars running on the roads, all equipped with cameras. Could there be a model where each of the owners of these cars could contribute towards HD maps? This would indeed be novel, there will be reams of raw data and the task in hand will be able to make sense out of it, converting it into meaningful information. In the era of Big Data this should not be a problem.

Figure 3

 The German Consortium & HERE

The German Consortium & HERE

The infrastructural developments are not limited to the infrastructure on Earth but they also extend to extra-terrestrial infrastructure with the advent of autonomous cars. The load on global positioning satellites will increase manyfold with the increase in the number of systems trying to connect to it. The number of satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO) is expected to reach 120 by around the mid-2020s.

Platoons of autonomous cars: The world around 2065

Extend this idea to 2065, when one can expect the sales of autonomous vehicles to hit the 100% mark under favorable conditions. In another 15 years from this mark, almost every car that we see on the road will be an autonomous car. One must imagine the kind of energy efficiency this system can have if car platoons move on the road, every car brakes and accelerates together, essentially moving at the same speed. What will be all the more interesting here will be the development of roads around this, especially roads that will let certain vehicles exit out of the platoon and let other cars enter the platoon.

Figure 4

 Car platooning, all autonomous cars by 2070, and the deployment of smart roads

Car platooning, all autonomous cars by 2070, and the deployment of smart roads

Data security, do I know where my car is taking me?

When it comes to infrastructure we must look outside the tacit infrastructure as well. Services that make autonomous car technology possible should also be scrutinized. Connection of the car to the cloud will essentially be the most important service, and yet we all seem to be missing one essential part of it which is data security. Harman Technologies seems to be the only company working on data security for autonomous cars. One must think through the consequences of not having a proper data security system in place. What if one day you were to just sit in your autonomous car and your car drives you to a remote unsafe location after getting instructions from a hacker? What if the car wouldn’t start unless you agree to pay a ransom amount to an expert hacker? There are many other questions which need to be thought through.

Conclusion

Amidst the buzz of all the technological marvels in an autonomous car, the advancements which enable autonomous cars to run on roads and function seamlessly are equally important. The challenges and opportunities talked about in this paper are just a handful in the grand scheme where we can expect interesting and intriguing developments to happen anytime and surprise us.

The author would like to acknowledge: Vijay Kumar Kabbin, WIPRO Technologies ltd. and Vijay Mantri, WIPRO technologies ltd. who consulted with her in the creation of this article.

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