Covid-19 casts a spotlight on communication with autonomous cars

9 Jun 2020

Image: © AA+W/

Aisling O’Driscoll, an investigator at SFI’s Connect research centre, examines what the current disruption could mean for the autonomous cars sector.

With the world going remote amid the Covid-19 crisis, communication has never been more important. This week, the IEEE’s International Conference on Communications (ICC) is taking place online, attracting more than 2,000 virtual participants.

This year’s event is being hosted by researchers from Connect – the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for future networks and communications. Though we may be getting weary of the endless Zoom calls, just imagine the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on our families and economy without these tools. High speed and reliable communication networks underpin remote working as well as critical logistics and supply chains.

This year’s ICC places a strong focus on newly emerging technologies. Driverless cars in particular are being eyed carefully for the value they could bring to the economic recovery.

The future of autonomous cars

While Covid-19 has severely impacted the automotive sector, driverless or autonomous vehicles are well placed to meet the new requirements for contactless travel. Indeed, in the US and China, autonomous vehicles are already delivering medicine, food and other critical items, including Covid-19 samples.

Communication technologies are the key to the widespread deployment and public acceptance of these self-driving vehicles. Their success will ultimately hinge on the vehicle’s ability to accurately perceive a situation, including all of its nuances. While autonomous vehicles can sense their environment using on-board sensors such as radar, lidar and cameras, these are often limited in scope and restricted to line-of-sight conditions. So simply adding more sensors isn’t a solution.

Instead, if vehicles could cooperate wirelessly with each other and communicate with surrounding infrastructure quickly, reliably and securely, then a very detailed picture of the surrounding environment could be built. The data generated by this wider perception could influence the nuanced decision-making necessary to make the system truly smart and safe to deploy.

This month will see the completion of the second phase of the 5G standard including specification of new radio technology for cellular vehicular communication technology, or C-V2X. While existing wireless and cellular technology can already support traffic safety and management applications, it does not have the capabilities to support enhanced vehicular applications, dubbed eV2X, that require ultra-low latencies and high reliability. This new specification therefore paves the way towards applications such as platooning, extended sensing, as well as automated and remote driving.

This technical jargon is about to become the new normal for the automotive industry, which has recognised its need to remodel as a transport tech titan.

‘An R&D roadmap for Ireland’

Ireland is already carving a niche in this area. Last October, three SFI research centres – Connect, Lero and Insight – came together to work with industry partners to further research on the use of connected autonomous vehicles in several domains including agriculture, marine and manufacturing. Bringing together experts in the research, design and implementation of mobile and wireless communications and networks for autonomous devices is key to progress in the area but much more is needed.

Ireland may not have an indigenous automotive industry, but it has all the components to be at the forefront of leading this revolution. So, while other areas of the global economy are facing a bleaker period, the current disruption could power this sector.

A future mobility agenda including an R&D roadmap for Ireland would help guide efforts in the field. Seamless, smart mobility has long been a goal of the European Union with cooperative, connected and automated mobility (CCAM) at the forefront of the next European research funding programme.

However, nationally, this area needs much more investment if Ireland is to be positioned to contribute meaningfully and leverage our strengths. A national CCAM coordinator tasked with defining Ireland’s future mobility agenda and ensuring the whole is more than the sum of its parts is vital. This is especially true given the diversity of stakeholders, including automotive manufacturers, roads authorities, universities, telecommunications operators, freight and logistics providers, and regional and public transport operators.

Such a role is distinctly different from the typical intelligent transportation system function and would propel Ireland towards engagement in European and global partnerships for the development and deployment of this disruptive technology.

By Aisling O’Driscoll

Aisling O’ Driscoll is an investigator at the SFI Connect research centre and a lecturer at University College Cork. She is also a member of the organising committee for ICC 2020.