The biggest challenge for autonomous cars is regulation, not tech

4 Aug 2017

Image: takkun/Shutterstock

As we drive down the road of autonomous car development, Wendy Belluomini of IBM Research thinks the biggest speed bump will be regulation.

When IBM isn’t pushing new boundaries in data storage, its Irish-based division, IBM Research, is quietly building systems for the future generations of connected and autonomous vehicles.

Driving this technology is Wendy Belluomini, who is the research centre’s director. She spends just as much time thinking about how governments and companies plan regulations for fleets of autonomous vehicles, as how the technology itself will actually work.

“The hardest thing for car companies is the point when they put that brand on a vehicle and take responsibility for what happens, after it has convinced itself it is safe and has convinced the regulator that it’s safe,” Belluomini said in conversation with

Even in the US, where much of this technology is being developed, the government is only now getting its head around actually putting the regulation in place to make these cars legal on the road, a number of years after them being tested in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

Collapse of the car industry

Depending on what you read, a future where self-driving cars dominate the streets is either just around the corner, or a fantasy.

Certainly, the US car manufacturers are somewhat panicked over what the future holds, with one of the less optimistic reports predicting that the introduction of commercially available, self-driving cars in the coming decade will collapse the industry by 2030.

As people en masse favour a model where car use is on-demand– similar to how Uber or Lyft operate today – there are suggestions that some would give up own cars totally, thereby crippling the current auto industry.

Staying ahead of the game, General Motors has already begun the manufacturing of 130 autonomous vehicles, and many of its competitors are looking to do the same in the near future.

This is despite the technology being far from perfect, as companies using semi-autonomous systems can attest to.

Data traffic jams

One of the biggest problems that companies and research groups are trying to solve is that of data, as, when these enormous mobile computers become the norm, they will be generating a staggering amount of data.

Early estimates say the average autonomous car will eventually create up to 4TB of data each day as their array of sensors record and respond to the world around them.

So, will cars – as part of the connected space that is the internet of things (IoT) – be the biggest throttlers of bandwidth, significantly reducing capacity as they try to communicate with one another and far-flung servers?

No, Belluomini said, for the simple fact that, no matter how good we think our networks are, they simply cannot handle such volumes of data.

“The way it handles [vast amounts of data] is that it never leaves the car,” she said.

“You have to put enough processing capability in the car so that it can handle that 4TB itself and only send up to a cloud the small subset that needs to be sent up.

“Anything that is mission-critical has to be handled in the car because you can’t have a situation where your collision avoidance system has bad network coverage and can no longer communicate with its server.”

But still, autonomous cars will need to communicate with the outside world – and, more importantly, with each other – in order to prevent possible collisions and other hazards.

Companies afraid of leaking data?

While the privacy of the passengers’ data has been one of the more talked-about concerns, we must also consider how willing car companies are going to be to share their data with other car manufacturers in real time.

Will General Motors really want to leave its systems vulnerable to corporate espionage from a rival company looking to find out more about its technology?

It’s a question we have yet to reach, according to Belluomini. “All companies have realised now that their data is very precious and they’ve become reluctant to share it.

“To get to a shared data world, where all the cars can communicate with each other as opposed to back to their own systems, there probably needs to be some more discussions about data sharing.

“I think you can probably do it in a way that it’s not really exposing the really valuable data. That’s something that [the companies] will have to work out.”

However, she added that when news of a car being hacked goes public, the reality in many cases is that the systems built into them simply weren’t designed with the intention of being so complex.

“We’re in a transition period where everyone is aware of this problem, and now the industry is designing itself with security,” she said.

“When you see truly autonomous vehicles hit the road, they’re just not going to be based on the same architectures as the ones from 20 years ago.”

Based on what we’ve seen come out of Silicon Valley and elsewhere in the world, this couldn’t be any closer to the truth.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic