Getting the UK connected
It’s clear that the success of connected autonomous vehicles (CAVs) and future mobility systems will rely heavily on a safe, secure, and reliable communications infrastructure, from the ground up. The UK—like many other developing countries around the world—is building this framework with the intention of getting as many consumers connected as quickly as possible.
At June’s Connected Britain conference, an update was given about the state of play. Phillip Graham, the chief executive of the UK National Infrastructure Commission reminded the audience that digital connectivity is no longer regarded as a luxury: “It’s an essential commodity as important as water and fuel. We only realize how important it is when we realize how much we need it when it’s not there.”
With demand for data growing rapidly—a trend that shows no signs of stopping—he said the UK needed a nationwide plan for high-speed broadband coverage for the whole country by 2033. He also urged the industry to upgrade cabling infrastructure to fiber from traditional copper wire to enable faster transfer speeds and better reliability.
Smarter Cities on the way
Smart Cities will be one of the beneficiaries to the upgraded cabling as the UK looks to roll out a 5G network and build better connectivity between vehicles and the environment.
“We’ve learnt there’s a lot of enthusiasm for 5G and a variety of test beds up and running—in automotive, rural locations, and for factories,” said Tony Sceales, Head of Program Development, 5G testbeds and trials at the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport. “What is really required are partnerships between different areas of industry, helped by technology but also system suppliers and telecoms providers. The opportunity is a general convergence and will allow tech companies to open up and partner with companies they would never normally work with.”
Paul Adams, the Marketing Director for Nokia in the UK and Ireland, was keen to stress that 5G is not merely the next generation of 4G communications.
“It is much bigger than that, provides a more efficient interface, and enables a large number of devices to operator on a smaller number of antenna,” he reasoned. “Our approach is ‘the city as a platform’ because by bringing together services such as logistics and vehicles, it helps to get the best out of the IT used. It’s not about getting a technology and deploying it, it’s got to have a purpose and work reliably and efficiently.”
Connectivity in action
The UK is home to a number of test beds regarding future transportation systems, one of them being the Smart Mobility Living Lab (SMLL), which is centered in London and run by a consortium of interested parties. Iwan Parry, Market Development Lead, New Mobility, at TRL (which is leading the consortium) stated the lab was a response to the practical implications that future technologies will have on people’s lives: “It has been driven by ourselves and our partners looking at how technology develops, but also how the government is looking at these technologies.”
Parry said the consortium recognizes it faces an important challenge because there will be a need in the future for autonomous vehicles to interact with pedestrians as well as other vehicles that are controlled by humans.
“We really have to know they can operate alongside each other, so have to develop the technology to be reliable, repeatable and robust,” he stressed. “What we are doing forms part of a CAV testing ecosystem in the UK, which is unique from a global perspective.”
The SMLL Project partners include: Cisco, which has built the test bed technology; the London Legacy Development Corporation, an initiative set up to capitalize on the success of the city’s 2012 Olympics and DG Cities, an urban innovation company established by London’s Royal Borough of Greenwich, a region where one of the test beds operates.
Ehsan Fazel, Systems Architect at Cisco, says that his company is looking at this particular test bed project from a different angle: “We are not just a company that is trying to build the most intelligent machine-learning algorithm and the biggest processes to make things happen. We are looking at insurance ramifications, how to get data from the local authority, and how to best integrate autonomous vehicles into the environment.”
Parry said that with many autonomous vehicle projects up and running in the UK, SMLL will then reach the next level: “Historical projects such as those run by Oxbotica and FiveAI are ready to scale and, as they do so, we can support that in our Living Lab environment. We are creating something that helps their testing process and helps us get a unique viewpoint on what testing needs to be done.”
The overall goal, he said, was to generate data that can help speed up the whole development program for autonomous vehicles.
Back to the future
The subjects of retrofitting technology and adapting vehicles and software systems to the existing environment were also raised at the Connected Britain event. While Parry admitted that no test bed could ever replicate every environment in the world, London does provide a wide variety of scenarios.
“We have the historic center of Greenwich with its narrow streets, the open roads of Queen Elizabeth Park, and many different ‘new town’ developments in the area,” he explained. “We talk about diversity of cities in the UK, but if you look at a global basis, there is even greater diversity—proving that if something works in London, it might not mean that it works elsewhere in the UK, let alone a developing world city such as Kolkata in India. But we are a starting point and are looking to apply these new technologies.
“The speed at which new cities such as New Cairo in Egypt and some of the Emirate states, are expanding makes our lives easier because we can gain more experience of new environments,” he added. “The exciting thing for us in London is that if we can do it here, we can do it in any city that requires retrospective fitting and installation.”