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Which Mobile Provider Will Win the UK’s Autonomous Car Race?

- February 16, 2017 - 0 Comments

I had the misfortune recently to have a car accident.  Airbags deployed, two cars written off, scary stuff.  Thankfully, both the other driver and I both walked away, very much shaken, but unhurt.  And thankfully the crash happened at not too high a speed which contributed to what I will call our ‘good fortune’ in being able to walk away.  Within a minute or two of the accident (and I was just out of the car by this time), a voice came from inside the (empty!) car: “Mr Speirs, is that you, are you OK, can you hear me?” Spooky or what!

My car has – sorry had – early generation “Connected Car” features, including “Emergency Call”.  And this was a trained call centre  operator checking that I was OK, letting me know that they had connected the emergency services.  “We’ve told the police that your airbag has deployed and also the precise location of your accident” I was informed.  Impressive!  And a real example of Internet of Things (IoT) technology in action.

What then is “Emergency Call”?  If an accident sets off the airbags or seat-belt tensioners, the Emergency Call to a central call centre is activated automatically. This ensures, in the event of an accident, that

  • The driver receives swift, targeted assistance in emergency situations from trained staff;
  • The driver benefits from immediate and automated transmission of data relevant to the rescue operation (site of accident, risk of injury), and hence optimum medical care for those involved in the accident
  • And even better – no mobile phone is necessary – emergency call is made via the car’s integrated SIM card.

Except.  Yes there is an exception.  Except when there is no mobile signal.

Some city dwellers may find this strange, but venture out of built-up areas in the UK and other countries and the mobile coverage  can be patchy.  Recently an official investigation found, rather bluntly, that “the [mobile] coverage on the UK’s trains and motorways was ‘frankly appalling'”.

This presents challenges to the car industry, the consumer, the politicians and regulators, as well as the mobile service providers. First a word on the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs): my intent here is not to criticise, rather I’m highlighting the opportunity for the proactive mobile operator.  Which of them will win the autonomous car race?

Mobile Coverage on Major Transport Routes: The Ofcom App

Before I discuss these challenges, let me report on a small mobile coverage experiment I undertook recently while researching this blog. I regularly drive the major west coast road, the 167 mile A82, from Glasgow to Glencoe and beyond to Inverness, and I asked my son Callum (he would say “told” 🙂 … and I did say I’d name-check him!) to test out the mobile signal coverage  along this route using a nice little coverage app from UK telecommunications regulator Ofcom.  I’ve put together the map below showing a selection of coverage examples along the route.  My map certainly “hints” at places your Connected Car features including Emergency Call are unlikely to function as hoped- for example I’ve shown examples where we could’t get any mobile signal at all to use the app!

Figure: Scotland’s West Coast Route: A82 Mobile Coverage Examples (Date 14 January 2017)

Caveats!

Please note the blue rectangles in the Ofcom app screenshots.  I’ve placed these here intentionally to cover the names of the various MNOs offering service in these areas – each line of green “tick” and red “cross” represents good and no coverage respectively from each MNO.  Also note that we weren’t able to use the app en-route in all places, specifically those without 3G or 4G – so a few of the above screen shots I took at the comfort of my desk simply by entering post codes (aka ZIP codes) into the app.  However this didn’t help in areas that don’t have identifiable post codes – as shown, the app “could not find” my location when en-route.  Finally, please note that this was the state of play on 14th January 2017.  Mobile coverage is expanding and I hope to be able to report on major improvements in the very near future! (you heard it here first :-))

“But Nobody Lives There”!

Mobile Coverage at the Glencoe Visitor Centre

Yes this is what I hear from the cynics and city-dwellers.  Let’s look at some of the facts.  Glencoe Village is tiny.  It only has around 250 residents.  But the Glencoe Visitor Center (postcode PH49 4HX) receives over 130,000 visitors per year. Glencoe Mountain (PH49 4HZ) receives around 150,000 visitors per year. Tyndrum (FK20 8RZ) is a tiny village but is a hugely busy stop-off point for people on long journeys. Scenic Loch Lomond (G83 8RD) receives well in excess of 1 million visitors per year. Next to nobody lives in any of these locations.  Yet lots and lots of people visit these places, and over 1 million vehicles pass by each of these ever year.  What do they have in common?  They are location on the major A82 trunk road.  And all have major mobile phone coverage gaps, as the Ofcom app demonstrates.

The opportunity is there for the proactive service provider with a smart marketing campaign: first to market with 4G in these areas, for example, could capture not only the local population but a good portion of the visitors, never mind the connected car opportunity.

Implications for the IoT and the Connected Car

Politicians need to be aware of mobile coverage limitations when planning connected car initiatives and regulations.  For example, while the EU’s “eCall” regulation from 2018 is well-intentioned, it assumes pervasive mobile connectivity.

For the car manufacturer, it’s clear that at some point, they will wake up to the challenges I’m outlining here and start placing their “Emergency Call” and upcoming Autonomous Car business with the MNOs who can prove the best geographical network coverage.  This will be more important as the autonomous car approaches reality in the next 10-15 years, since 5G coverage is recognised as “mandatory” by the likes of BMW.  Clearly, this will need to be pervasive geographical coverage – at least along our roads: Who would want an autonomous car that could only drive to the city limits?!

In my opinion, the need for pervasive (100%) geographical mobile coverage has not been, to date, broadly acknowledged nor prioritised in the UK. The prevailing metric has been a focus on population coverage, which reflects on where people live rather than where they go to or travel through.  UK MNO EE, for example, called out their competitors’ commitment to such goals in their CEO’s open letter to their competitor CEOs.   Telecoms.com – facetiously I have to say – questioned the need for 100% geographical coverage: “the remaining geographical coverage holes mainly concern people desperate to put their photos of the Scottish Highlands of Facebook without delay”.  And the lack of broadband provision for businesses in rural areas – a subject I blogged on last year regarding my local ski centre ticket office queues – reflects this lack of problem recognition and prioritisation.

The Mobile Network Operator Opportunity

As I mentioned above, my intent here is not to criticise or blame: priority calls have to be made.  Rather my intent is to highlight the need and the opportunity.   With my car crash, the real benefit of – and need for – IoT-like “Emergency Call” became crystal clear to me.  As did the mobile coverage reality: I’m “fortunate” that my car accident happened in an area of good mobile coverage.  Mobile services can indeed be the platform to potentially save lives by enabling rapid emergency services response.

In terms of raw numbers, KPMG’s 2015 report on the economic benefit to the UK from autonomous cars claims $50Bn+ opportunity by 2030. They cite that the “Telecommunications industry will benefit from dramatically increasing data traffic”, with “forecast growth of approximately 12% annually to 2030”.

The network, then, has and will become ever more central to the driving experience.  MNOs investing in pervasive road, rail and geographical coverage stand to win in the connected transport and autonomous car race.

In the meantime, just be careful where you have your car accidents!

 

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