Over-use of in-car mobile devices during traffic jams will cause havoc

Traffic jams of the future may cause dangerous data snarl-ups, as cars packed with entertainment, and safety and navigation features, vie for airwaves with smartphones, tablets and networked features in other vehicles, according to a study.

By 2024, on mobile networks, machine-to-machine (M2M) connections will have jumped ten-fold, to 2.3bn, from 250m in 2014. Half these links will be automotive, said the study by Machina Research.

On the roads, about one in five vehicles worldwide will have a wireless network connection by 2020 (that’s a quarter of a billion connected vehicles), forecasts technology research firm, Gartner.

Connected cars with onboard Wi-Fi connections could cause spikes in mobile data demand when traffic grinds to a halt, as drivers seek alternative routes and bored passengers search for entertainment on phones and tablets.

Car-navigation and collision-detection systems that rely on local networks to identify obstacles could then become strained. The dangers will mount over the next decade, but the report stops short of painting a picture of bloody roadside pile-ups. Such scenarios can be averted if network operators better manage surging, unpredictable data demands in congested areas and if device-makers ensure their products do not interfere with other network users.

“In terms of overall data volumes, connected cars don’t present much of a problem,” said Matt Hatton, founder and chief executive of Machina, a British market research firm specialising in machine-to-machine data communications.

“But network resource management is not based on total traffic volume. It’s based on particular cell sites during peak times of network use,” Hatton said of the antennas and equipment used to transfer mobile calls and data to and from a local area.

Peak online traffic in rush hour could double in the immediate vicinity of congested areas, due to the electronics on board connected cars, Machina estimates.

Already, most drivers stuck in traffic jams expect mobile phone coverage to drop, because of the sheer volume of callers who suddenly find themselves bumper-to-bumper.

But while phones make minimal demands on a network until a user downloads a video, updates email or makes a call, network congestion multiplies when drivers converge in road traffic.

“Connected cars, as with other M2M devices, don’t behave like smartphones,” Hatton said, due in part to the more diverse devices that will come into play with so many machines talking to other machines.

Meanwhile, a report projects that car sales in the US could drop by 40% in the next 25 years, because of shared driverless cars, forcing mass-market producers, such as General Motors and Ford, to slash output. Vehicle ownership rates may fall by half as families buy just one car, according to the Disruptive Mobility report by analyst, Brian Johnson. Driverless cars will travel twice as many miles as manually driven ones, because they will transport each family member during the day. Self-driving cars have become a frequent topic for car executives as the technology emerges. Self-driving cars may account for a quarter of global car sales by 2035, according to Boston Consulting Group. By 2017, partially autonomous vehicles will become available in “large numbers”.

Johnson’s report contends that driverless cars will upend the car industry. Carmakers are working to overhaul their business models, for a world where mobility is being redefined, as most of the global population crowds into large megacities during the next two decades. Driverless cars that move in harmony may become essential to keep people and goods flowing safely and efficiently. Johnson foresees four vehicle categories — traditional cars and trucks, driven by individuals for work or in rural areas; “family autonomous vehicles,” shared by a single family; “shared autonomous vehicles” that would be “robot taxis” summoned by smartphone; and “pooled shared autonomous vehicles” that accommodate multiple riders, like a bus or a van.

Every shared vehicle on the road would displace nine traditional cars, and each pooled, shared vehicle would take the place of as many as 18, according to Johnson’s report.

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