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.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.