How tech companies and telecom operators will shape connected vehicles

The future is hard to predict, but when it comes to mobility – and in particular, driving – we can be fairly sure that it will involve more and more information technology. That is happening already, with driver assistance systems like satellite navigation, accident alerts and fatigue warnings now commonplace in new cars. As internet-connected vehicles roll out, the automotive sector, telecoms operators, technology companies and governments will all need to work together to ensure these systems are fit for purpose.

There is likely to be tension between them. And it will be particularly tense this autumn, when the European Commission announces legislation that could determine whether carmakers rely on Wi-Fi or wireless 5G technology to build internet-connected vehicles.

European governments have already agreed to make next-generation mobile technology ready for commercial use by 2025. But the technical decisions on what technology to use will shape the success of the eventual roll-out.

The Commission proposal this autumn will cover the standards for powering new vehicles with internet-based functions like automatic braking or smart entertainment systems. Technological standards would help Europe’s vehicle manufacturers mass produce millions of vehicles without dealing with different systems and protocols.

It would also help them tap into the benefits of in-vehicle connectivity, such as enhanced safety, over-the-air updates, and better understanding their customers. This matters globally too: Europe is already one of the largest markets for connected cars in the world — Business Insider Intelligence estimates that 25% of all connected cars shipped globally last year went to the continent.

In this case, there is a choice between a Wi-Fi-based vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) system that is already available for use, and the cellular vehicle-to-everything technology known as C-V2X, which is associated with 5G networks.

Most carmakers argue that the Wi-Fi-based V2V option is safer because cars do not need to connect to telecoms networks for internet-connected braking to function quickly.

But backers of C-V2X include an alliance of CEO’s from 15 tech companies and telecoms operators like Deutsche Telekom, Huawei, Intel, Telefonica, Samsung, Qualcomm and Vodafone, who wrote to Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker earlier in July to warn that favouring Wi-Fi “would stunt the overall emergence of 5G connectivity infrastructure in Europe and run counter to the objectives of the Commission’s own 5G action plan.” The letter, which called for all connected cars in the EU to come built with C-V2X technologies, was also signed by BMW, Daimler, Ford, and PSA, showing that the automotive industry is divided on the issue.

The Commission insists its connected car proposal will be “technology neutral”, meaning that it will not side with one option over the other. However, a 2016 Commission strategy paper said that “initial deployment…will be based on technologies already available where appropriate”, meaning Wi-Fi systems,  “and will operate in seamless coexistence with 5G, under a complementarity principle”.

Like many technology decisions, this one is burdened with risks, and at this juncture it is hard to say where the biggest dangers lie. While connected cars are coming anyhow, they might arrive a little later than planned if the Commission makes the wrong choice.