Will a data centre be driving your car in 12 years' time?

Keep your hands off the wheel, sir

Driverless cars will be taking over our roads in around 12 years time, when comms technology has advanced to deliver the power of the datacentre direct to your preferred motor.

Andreas Reich, head of electronic pre development at Audi, this week told a Huawei Innovation Conference in Munich that if the 1970s was the age of electronics for the auto industry, and the 90s the age of software, we are now in the age of “cloud data”.

“This decade it’s being connected seamlessly with custom infrastructure and other vehicles,” Reich said. “We bring the internet to the car. The driver should get all the information he needs while he is driving."

A rapid ramp-up of in-car processing power, and the promise of ultra-fast communications meant drivers could confidently hand over the controls to silicon full in around 12 years time he predicted.

Reich said this would mean a rapid increase in the computing horsepower each car carried, from 8,000 dmips for Audi’s 2014 models to 20,000 by next year. He said the firm's infotainment systems would be modular to allow silicon horsepower to be jacked up in the future without scrapping the whole vehicle.

Connected services meant drivers would be able to use all the apps they use outside their car, inside their car, while driving, he claimed. When it came to navigation, for example, this would include “real images of your environment up to 30 meters, then Streetview.”

Audi has already developed a traffic light system that will integrate its vehicles with cities' traffic systems to optimise speeds and reduce carbon emissions, slowing down vehicles approaching lights and switching on engines five seconds before the light goes to green. This has been tested in the US, Europe and Asia. The next step will be developing a common interface to easily connect Audi’s vehicles to cities’ and local government’s traffic management systems.

Similarly, systems to automate parking and direct cars to empty spaces will require cars to be integrated with municipal systems and those of private parking operators.

The next stage, swarm intelligence, would bring together data from many cars, with the grunt work being done at the back end and results redistributed to vehicles. This would result in the production of very accurate real time maps, for example. “If one car has a break down it sends info to all other cars – you can get this information before you see the car.”

The shift to fully “piloted” driving would likely start with piloted parking, Reich predicted, and traffic jam driving. The latter would see the car taking control of low speed stop start driving, while the driver is free to do something else more productive, or at least less frustrating.

Full speed motorway driving, and urban driving are much more complex problems, Reich said. But while processing power will accelerate vehicle’s systems’ ability to make judgements, the ethics behind those judgements have yet to be ironed out – for example, in the event of a child running out of the road, should a piloted car hit the child or avoid the child but hit an oncoming car with four passengers?

All this will require very wide band communication into the car. The carmaker has already integrated LTE into vehicles in China and will roll this out worldwide next year.

This would coincide with the oneset of the very wide bandwidth comms promised with 5G. However, Reich questioned whether 5G was the answer to all comms' needs, such as car-to-car communication.

This amount of data moving between remote data processing centres and vehicles at high speed also raised security issues, Reich accepted. While this was not a consideration for auto makers even five years ago, he said, today it is “one of the main topics we are working on. Our strategy is end to end security concept.”

5G is expected to starting coming together around 2020, opening up the prospect of massively high bandwidth wireless and other comms. Once these issues have been sorted, Reich confidently declared we can really move to the next stage – completely piloted driving in around 12 years.

Will we also see the driverless datacentre around the same time? It’s one thing negotiating five lanes of traffic at 140kmph. Overseeing thousands of servers is of course quite another level of complexity – but one you will soon be able to do while stuck in a traffic jam. ®

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