Self driving cars will need wireless broadband, but not for heavy duty computing

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

There will be a flood of bits swirling through self driving cars, and virtually all of that data will be processed by onboard computers, even where 5G networks are deployed.

“Autonomous vehicles are software defined”, said Deepu Talla, vice president of autonomous machines at Nvidia, a high end chip maker, speaking at CES. That software will run on onboard computers, and won’t be processed served from the cloud via mobile broadband networks, he said. There are four reasons for that:

  1. Latency. If you’re in a moving car, the round trip for data takes too long.
  2. Bandwidth. Cars will continually generate huge amounts of data, particularly from the many high definition video cameras they’ll use to monitor where they’re going and what’s around them.
  3. Connectivity. It’s not always there, particularly in rural areas, but even in cities there are momentary holes and bottlenecks in network coverage. Not big enough, perhaps, for a human to perceive but enough to delay machine to machine communication for critical milliseconds.
  4. Privacy. Although it’s not as big of a concern for cars as for, say, medical devices, it’s still a limiting factor.

5G won’t solve the problem, Talla said. Latency may decrease but it will still be there and 5G’s greater bandwidth will be eaten up by greater demand. “the amount of data will increase too”, he said.

Continental, a German automotive technology company, plans to scale up in-car local area networks to 10 Gbps to handle that load. Most of it will be video streams from high resolution cameras – 8 megapixels – that have to processed and analysed in real time. Each car will have at least four cameras, and possibly more. Plus radar and lidar, and video streams transmitted directly from cars up ahead.

Mobile broadband will still play a role. Live connections to the cloud are yet another source of data, particularly for error detection, debugging and instant repair. Connectivity will be required for cars to reach Level 5, the top level of autonomous operation, according to Continental staff who briefed industry analysts during CES. At that level, the car does everything, everywhere, without the need for human monitors. That’s the point where you can take a nap in the back seat while driving to work.