Scott Belcher presents some new thinking about connected and autonomous vehicles

In the November 2017 issue of Thinking Highways North America, I wrote about some of the new trends I am seeing in smart transportation. In this article, I go a little deeper into a few of the challenges associated with deploying connected and autonomous vehicles and introduce examples of just some of the companies working to address these challenges.

There has been quite a bit of activity in Washington recently focused on autonomous vehicles. The US House of Representatives passed a bill providing greater guidance on Federal/State roles,testing, security, privacy and the number of vehicles that automobile manufacturers can introduce into the marketplace for testing.

The US Senate Commerce Committee just passed a very similar bill that is now awaiting action from the full Senate. Finally, the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) recently released an updated and scaled back version of last year’s guidance for autonomous vehicles that is intended to make it easier for companies to introduce autonomous vehicle technology.

This flexibility could present real challenges for companies testing their products prior to manufacturing. The Rand Corporation published a report criticizing this hands-off approach arguing that the USDOT and the industry must establish stronger testing guidelines to adequately protect consumers. One organization that will be a key player in refining the guidance will be the Transportation Research Center Inc. (TRC). The Transportation Research Center is the nation’s largest independent vehicle test facility and it has been testing light and heavy-duty vehicles for over 30 years at its 4,500 acre Ohio location. During much of this time the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has operated its own vehicle test facility at TRC. NHTSA recently signed a 20-year extension on their lease with TRC. TRC has access to an ecosystem for testing that includes the Ohio State University, Smart Columbus (the recipient of the U.S. DOT’s Smart City Grant), US 33 Smart Mobility Corridor, and the Smart Belt Coalition (Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania). Given its extensive experience with pre-productions testing and its multi-faceted test facility, TRC is well situated to help refine the autonomous vehicle testing criteria that will be necessary to ensure vehicle and consumer safety.

As we move closer to connected and autonomous vehicle deployment, data movement and communications have become increasingly important. We know that in Michigan’s Connected Vehicle Safety Pilot, moving data from 2,800 connected vehicles used more than 60% of Ann Arbor’s fiber network. We also know that autonomous vehicle produce between one and three terabytes of data an hour, orders of magnitude more than connected vehicles. When discussing connected and autonomous vehicle deployment, many of us draw pictures of vehicles with lightning bolts running to the cloud or to a cell tower representing wireless connectivity. At the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), I learned that the lightning bolt actually represented an extensive nationwide network of data centers (the Cloud), cell towers, small cells and fiber. Now I am obsessed with helping figure out to move and process the terabytes of data that autonomous vehicles are expected to produce without crashing the cellular network.

While at TIA, I was introduced to a company called Crown Castle, the nation’s largest provider of communications infrastructure (40,000 cell towers, 50,000 small cells, and 60,000 miles of fiber). Companies like Verizon, AT&T, and Crown Castle will provide the infrastructure necessary to deploy 5G, Smart Cities and autonomous vehicles. The current network, however, cannot support these innovations without further network densification and edge computing. While the Cloud has resulted in massive savings and efficiency, it alone will not meet the needs of applications that require low latency and very high reliability. Meeting the needs of such applications will require a distributed edge solution that enables triaging data at or near the point of transmission to determine which data is mission critical and needs to be processed at the edge, which data is less time sensitive and can go to the Cloud for processing, and which data can be discarded.

Ann Arbor is a city in the US state of Michigan and the county seat of Washtenaw County

There will be many companies with edge solution battling for this market. One company that seems to have a leg up is a start-up called Vapor IO, a Crown Castle investee. Vapor IO has developed a solution that addresses a number of the challenges currently facing edge processing. First, it has developed a unique rack enclosure system that allows the operator to densely pack computing and telecom equipment in very confined spaces (e.g., more than 130Kw of equipment and servers can be placed in a 9’ diameter enclosure at the base of a cell tower) and better manage power demand and heating and cooling. Second, it has developed software that allows the operator to better monitor edge workloads to provide the type of triage and processing described above. Finally, it has developed a platform that enables the operator to autonomously manage clusters of distributed servers. Vapor IO and Crown Castle have also partnered to deliver Vapor iO’s edge solution via a colocation model that manages rack space in edge locations that leverage Crown Castle’s real estate and fiber infrastructure lowering the capital investment costs of edge infrastructure.

On a more basic level, state and local departments of transportation (DOT) need to prepare their existing transportation infrastructure for connected and autonomous vehicles. This will be particularly challenging given that much of that infrastructure is comprised of older, proprietary, systems that don’t communicate with each other or with the vehicles on the road. Until DOTs can upgrade their hardware and software with open and interoperable solutions, they will need bridge solutions. One such solutions is All Traffic Solutions’ TrafficCloud™ and TrafficBridge that together provide the operator with a Cloud-based enterprise platform that sits on top of the existing traffic management system and allows the operator to manage all of its proprietary systems as if they were on the same platform and interoperable. In other words, the operator can view all of their data in one place, with a user-friendly interface, and optimize their entire system, not just the individual elements in it.

These are exciting times for transportation and companies like TRC, Crown Castle, Vapor IO and All Traffic Solutions are simply examples of many of the many companies out there that are bringing innovative solutions to the new challenges that connected and autonomous vehicles are creating

Scott Belcher is  President and CEO of SFB Consulting, LLC