Since testing driverless cars out on the open road is probably a bit dangerous in the early stages, Verizon, the University of Michigan and 14 other partners have built a controlled but fully functioning mini-city where they develop and test driverless cars.
Called M-City, the project includes a 32-acre urbanized test ground situated in Michigan. It doesn't just have roads either; there are robotic human dummies, streets, intersections, traffic signs, buildings and sidewalks to make it feel like home.
Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) is one of 15 companies working with the University of Michigan to test driverless cars, and its focus is on how vehicles will communicate with others in the city -- specifically other vehicles (vehicle-to-vehicle or V2V), pedestrians (V2P), bicycles (V2B) and the infrastructure it's running on (V21). (See If These Cars Could Talk.)
Amit Jain, director of corporate strategy of IoT verticals at Verizon, says that when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) first allocated spectrum in the 5.9GHz band to automobiles, the intention was for it to be used for V2V -- cars exchanging messages to warn of impending collisions. (See Spectrum Spats: Chatty Cars, Busy Broadcast Airwaves.)
V2V has yet to take off, however, primarily because of the issue of who will pay to implement the technology and the long lifespan of cars, Jain says. In the meantime, Verizon is looking for other ways to achieve the same objective of safety and accident reduction.
"We're eager to see if smartphones with a lifespan of two years or less will be one way to propagate the technology," Jain says. "That's why we're joining the effort."
Similar to V2V, vehicle to pedestrian or bike communication relies on DSRC, or dedicated short range wireless communications channels in the upper 5.9Ghz spectrum, to warn a driver if a bike or person is approaching. Future iterations could even automatically apply the brakes when someone is too close. DSRC works in a less than 1 kilometer radius, Jain says, and ultimately has to be device and carrier agnostic to be effective. (See Telefónica: Safety Is Top Connected Car 'App'.)
Verizon also has made big investments in connected cars that it wants to see take off, including its 2012 acquisition of Hughes Telematics. Jain says much of the technology behind M-City springs from Hughes. It also has embedded technologies with automakers Mercedes Benz, Volkswagen and others, aftermarket services for insurance providers, its ZipCar-like service Verizon Auto Share and fleet management technology. (See Verizon Creates a Mobile ZipCar and Verizon Spends $612M for a Future in Cars.)
Verizon Vehicle, its aftermarket solution for embedding connectivity in cars that are already on the market, is currently in beta testing with plans to launch commercially later this year. (See Verizon Vehicle Races to Catch Up to OnStar.)
Verizon's CEO Lowell McAdam has made bold predictions that driverless cars could hit the streets in the next three to five years, which may be too ambitious given the number of moving parts involved, but Jain sees pilots like M-City helping to move the market forward. (See Verizon CEO: Self-Driving Cars Could Hit Road Soon.)
He says that collaboration with state governments will be a key factor -- fixing potholes and investing in improving streets, traffic lights and tolls is a big part of it. Getting support from automakers and -- of course -- cracking the business case issue, will be paramount as well. (See Carriers Test-Drive Connected Car Biz Models.)
"We're very excited to be the only carrier on the leadership circle," Jain says of M-City. "I've been in this field for a long time; when you get a lot of big behemoths, especially automakers that are fierce competitors, it's hard to coalesce people around a cause. What I'm seeing is unbelievable with all the disparate parties coming together to form standards and facilitate innovation. It's going to be unprecedented."
— Sarah Thomas, , Editorial Operations Director, Light Reading