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Cars That Talk Need Wireless That Works

If the Wi-Fi doesn't work at auto shows, how can tomorrow's smart cars rely on it?

1 min read
Cars That Talk Need Wireless That Works
Illustration: Randi Klett

At two recent auto events the hyped vision of communicative cars came up against a hard reality: the spottiness of wireless technology.

During the Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress, held at Detroit's Cobo Hall last month, the Wi-Fi system died just as I was trying to send my editor a description of a presentation on real-time, car-to-car communication. And when I tried to text him, I found that my carrier's coverage didn't reach inside the auditorium.  

Now comes a similar report from the Paris Auto Show by a car-covering colleague from Canada, the National Post's David Booth. The headline says it all: "If we can't figure out Wi-Fi in a stationary building, what does that say for autonomous car networks?"

"Every single automaker exhibiting at the Paris Expo is currently developing a self-driving automobile, most of which will require interconnectivity if robotic cars are to safely navigate our roads," Booth writes. "That said, the fact that manufacturers can’t always provide enough bandwidth for a few measly laptops in a very stationary building doesn’t exactly breed confidence in our autonomous future."

We've seen this before, nearly two decades ago, when Oracle and other networking companies said computers would soon shed all of their storage and much of their processing power. The resulting stripped-down "thin clients" would then tap the "fat pipes" of a superfast Internet, giving us all the power we needed at a piddling cost. Well, that vision is coming true to a degree. But we still can't rely on the cloud for quick answers to life-and-death questions.

Unreliable wireless communication may well be the greatest single technical problem holding back smart cars. Until we solve it, smart cars will have to treat such communication as just another sensor, and not a particularly reliable one at that.

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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images
Green

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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