The Myth of 5G and Driverless Cars

A colleague sent me an article that had been published earlier this year in MachineDesign magazine that predicts that driverless cars can’t be realized until we have a ubiquitous 5G network. When looking for the original article on the web I noticed numerous similar articles like this one in Forbes that have the same opinion.

These articles and other similar articles predict that high-bandwidth, low-latency 5G networks are only a few years away. I’m not quite sure who these folks think will invest the $100 billion or more that would likely be required to build such a wireless network along all of the roads in the country. None of the cellular carriers have such grandiose plans, and if they did their stockholders would likely replace a management team that suggested such an investment.

It’s easy to understand how this myth got started. When 5G was first discussed, the cellular companies listed self-driving cars as one of the reasons the government should support 5G. However, over time they’ve all dropped this application from their 5G message and it’s no longer a cellular company talking point.

The idea that 5G is needed for self-driving cars is bolstered by the belief that the computing power of a data center is needed to process the massive amounts of data generated by a self-driving car. That very well may be true, and the current versions of self-driving cars are essentially data centers on wheels that contain several fast computers.

The belief that 5G will enable self-driving cars also comes from the promise of low latency, near to that of a direct fiber connection. The folks that wrote these articles envision a massive 2-way data transfer happening constantly with 5G for every self-driving car. I can’t imagine they have ever talked to a network engineer about the challenge of creating 2-way wireless gigabit connections with hundreds of moving cars simultaneously on a freeway at rush hour. It’s hard to envision the small cell site and fiber infrastructure needed to handle that without hiccups. I also don’t know if the authors have recently driven down many rural reads recently to remind themselves of the huge challenge of implementing rural gigabit 5G.

The talk of using wireless for vehicles also ignores some fundamental issues. Wireless technologies are wonky in the real world. Radio waves do odd things in the wild and every wireless network has dead zones and places where the system mysteriously won’t work the way it’s supposed to. Worse, the dead spots and odd spots move around with changes in temperature, humidity, and precipitation.

Network engineers also would advise that for a critical task like driving at high speeds that every vehicle should have a redundant back-up connection, meaning a second wireless connection in case the first one has a problem. Anybody that puts critical tasks on a fiber network invests in such redundancy. Hospitals that use broadband as part of a surgical procedure or a factory that does precision manufacturing will have a second fiber connection to be safe. It’s hard to imagine a redundant connection for a moving car since the only place it can come from is the nearest cell sites that provide the primary connection.

I don’t know how other feel about this, but I’m not about to trust my life to a self-driving car that needs a connection to an external data center to be safe. I know too much about how broadband networks function to believe that 5G networks will somehow always make perfect connections when other fiber networks don’t.

One of the first things that came to my mind when I read these articles was to wonder what happens when there is a fiber outage on the network supporting the 5G cell sites. Do all of the self-driving cars just stop and wait for a broadband signal? I picture a city during an event like the 19-hour CenturyLink fiber outage a year ago and wonder if we are so stupid as to make our transportation systems reliant on external computing and external networks. I sure hope that we are not that dumb.

AT&T and Connected Vehicles

AT&T just released a blog talking about their connected vehicle product. This blog paints a picture of where AT&T is at today and where they hope to be headed into the future in this market niche.

For a company like AT&T, the only reason to be excited about a new market niche is the creation of a new revenue stream. AT&T claims to have 24 million connected cars on its network as of the end of 3Q 2018. They also claim 3 million additional connected fleet vehicles. They also have over 1 million customers who are buying mobile WiFi hotspots from AT&T.

What does that look like as a revenue stream? AT&T has relationships with 29 global car manufacturers. Most new cars today come with some kind of connectivity plan that’s free to a car buyer for a short time, usually 3 to 6 months. When the free trial is over consumers must subscribe in order to retain the connectivity service.

As an example of how this works, all new Buicks and Fiats come with AT&T’s UConnect Access for a 6-month free trial period. This service provides unlimited broadband to the vehicle for streaming video or for feeding the on-board mapping system. After the trial customers must subscribe to the service at a monthly rate of $14.99 per month – or they can buy a la carte for connectivity at $9.99 per day or $34.99 per month.

In the blog AT&T touts a relationship with Subaru. The company provides a trial subscription to Starlink that provides on-board navigation on a screen plus safety features like the ability to call for roadside assistance or to locate a stolen vehicle. Subaru offers different plans for different vehicles that range from a Starlink trial of between 4-months and 3-years. Once the trial is over the cost of extending Starlink is $49 for the first year and then $99 per year to extend just the security package or $149 per year to extend the whole service. Starlink is not part of AT&T, so only some portion of this revenue goes to the carrier.

I wonder how many people extend these free trials and become paying customers? I have to think that the majority of the AT&T connected vehicles are under the Starlink relationship which has been around for many years. Families that drive a lot and watch a lot of video in a vehicle might find the UConnect Access to be a much better alternative than using cellular data plans. People who want the feature of locating their car if stolen might like the Starlink. However, most drivers probably don’t see a value in these plans. Most of the features offered in these packages are available as part of everybody’s cellular data plans using the Bluetooth connectivity in these vehicles.

The vehicle fleet business, however, is intriguing. Companies can use this connectivity to keep drivers connected to the home office and core software systems. This can also be done with cellphones, but I can think of several benefits to building this directly into the vehicle.

The second half of their blog discusses the possibility for 5G and automated cars. That’s the future revenue stream the company is banking on, and probably one of their biggest hopes for 5G. They have two hopes for 5G vehicle connectivity:

  • They hope to provide the connectivity between vehicles using 5G and the cloud. They believe that cars will be connected to the 5G network in order to ‘learn’ from other vehicle’s driving experience in the immediate vicinity.
  • They also hope to eventually provide broadband to driverless cars where passengers will be interested in being connected while traveling.

The first application of connecting nearby vehicles is no guarantee. It all depends on the technology path chosen to power driverless vehicles. There is one school of thought that says that the majority of the brains and decision making will be done by on-board computers, and if cars connect to nearby vehicles it will be through the use of on-board wireless communication. AT&T is hoping for the alternate approach where that connectivity is done in the cloud – but that’s going to require a massive investment in small cell sites everywhere. If the cloud solution is not the preferred technology then companies like AT&T will have no incentive to place 5G cell sites along the millions of miles of roads.

This is one of those chicken and egg situations. I liken it to smart city technology. A decade ago many predicted that cities would need mountains of fiber to support smart cities – but today most such applications are being done wirelessly. Any company banking on a fiber-based solution got left behind. At this point, nobody can predict the technology that will ultimately be used by smart cars. However, since the 5G technology needs the deployment of a massive ubiquitous cellular network, the simpler solution is to do it some other way.

Unintended Consequencies

Tribrid_CarI write a lot about new technologies that are likely to impact our daily lives or the small carrier business over the next decade. It’s very easy when looking at new technologies to only think about the positive aspects of the technology and to not consider the negative or unintended consequences. And to be fair, both the positive and the negative should be considered when talking about new technologies – because transformational technologies always have unintended consequences.

A great example of an unintended consequence is the impact that owning smartphones, tablets, and similar electronics has had on children. I rarely see kids playing outside where I live. My wife swears that there are kids living all around us, but I must take her word for it since I never see them. Certainly when smartphones and other electronics were invented they were not intended to transform the way our youth spends their lives – but the unintended consequence of the technology has been to keep kids inside.

There are a number of major technologies that we are going to be seeing a lot more of within a decade such as self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, gene-splicing, etc. I read articles all of the time talking about the benefits these technologies will bring into our lives, but I rarely see anybody talking about the flip side.

Consider driverless cars. There are a number of benefits that can be envisioned for the technology. Self-driving cars will enable the elderly to be self-sufficient for longer. Self-driving cars will eliminate drunk drivers and texting while driving and will drastically cut down on traffic fatalities. But I can also think of a number of possible unintended consequences of driverless cars.

One of the big touted benefits of driverless cars is that they will increase urban driving efficiency since self-driving cars can move en masse without gaps between cars. But for anybody who has ever lived in a city, this could end up increasing gridlock rather than decreasing it. It’s not hard to imagine people going to the store and having their car circle the block endlessly until they are ready for it. There could be hordes of such empty cars driving in circles and clogging city streets.

Driverless cars also will free people up to do something other than driving. For people who commute this might mean extending the work day. I picture conference calls (voice and video) and other communication being scheduled during driving time.

Another unintended consequence of moving the home or office into the vehicle could be the death of traditional radio – a medium that is already struggling against streaming music and podcasts. Radio mostly thrives today based on advertising to people while they are driving. You can listen to radio without much physical interaction with the radio. But if driverless cars free people up to work or to do things they would have done at home, then the need for radio largely disappears – there are a lot of better ways to get music, news or entertainment if you are not occupied with driving.

Carried to extremes it’s not hard to imagine people living in their driverless cars. Take out the steering wheel and traditional seats and a car could be turned into a cozy cave. One could picture people adopting a totally mobile lifestyle using solar powered self-driving cars. It’s hard to imagine the effect on society of having a lot of nomadic car-people with no loyalty or identity to a fixed address.

I’m not particularly picking on the idea of driverless cars because I fully expect the benefits to outweigh any negative impacts. But some of these unintended consequences are not inconsequential. People will always find ways to use new technologies in ways that were not envisioned. I can make a similar list of for every other major technology that we are expecting to see in the coming decade. Not all unintended consequences are bad, but it’s likely that some of the incidental consequences of new technologies will have more impact on society than the intended ones.

The telecom industry is not immune from unintended consequences. For example, consider the deployment of fast broadband and the fact that fast broadband technologies are expensive to deploy. While broadband has brought great benefits to communities that have it, those parts of the country without it are starting to see big impacts from the lack of broadband. This isn’t something that anybody intended to happen, but it is a natural result of the expensive cost of deploying the new technology.

We are Almost at the Tipping Point

Alexander_Crystal_SeerThere is an amazing amount of progress going on in numerous fields that affect our daily lives.

Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Software and Society polled experts to ask when they expected major new technologies to hit a tipping point, meaning that the technology would pass the point where it would then become a mainstream norm. The list of technological changes that are predicted for the next ten years is astounding. This coming decade is probably going to be considered by historians as the time when mankind moved past the era of the Industrial Revolution into the Computer and Software Age.

We live in a time when it has become routine to expect rapid changes and improvements in the way we do things. But taken altogether, we will hit a tipping point with so many new technologies that lives will be decidedly different a decade from now compared to today. Following are the changes that this group foresees on the immediate horizon along with a prediction of when each of the changes passes the tipping point and becomes part of our daily lives. Note that the tipping points they provided are not the only event that could move a technology into the mainstream, but instead are a good example.

  • Implantable Technology – Tipping point when the first implantable mobile phone is commercially available. Expected date: 2023
  • Personal Digital Presence – Tipping point when 80% of people in the world have a digital presence on the web. Expected data: 2023
  • Vision as the New Interface. Tipping point when 10% of reading glasses connect to the internet. Expected date: 2023
  • Wearable Internet – Tipping point when 10% of people wear clothes connected to the Internet. Expected date: 2022.
  • Ubiquitous Computing – Tipping point when 90% of the world’s population has access to the Internet. Expected date: 2024.
  • A Supercomputer in Your Pocket. Tipping point when 90% of the world population has a smartphone. Expected date: 2023
  • Storage for All – Tipping point when 90% of people have unlimited and free (supported by advertising) data storage. Expected date: 2025.
  • The Internet of Things – Tipping point when 1 trillion sensors are connected to the Internet. Expected date: 2022.
  • The Connected Home – Tipping point when over 50% of broadband to homes is used for appliances and devices. Expected date: 2024.
  • Smart Cities – Tipping point when the first city with more than 50,000 people has no traffic lights. Expected date: 2026
  • Big Data for Decisions – Tipping point when the first government replaces a census with big data. Expected date: 2023.
  • Driverless Cars – Tipping point when driverless cars are 10% of the vehicles on the road. Expected date: 2026.
  • Artificial Intelligence and Decision-Making – Tipping point when an AI is on a major corporate Board. Expected date: 2026.
  • AI and White Collar Jobs – Tipping point when 30% of corporate audits are done by AI. Expected date: 2025.
  • Robotics – Tipping point is the first robotic pharmacist in the US. Expected date: 2021.
  • Bitcoin and Blockchain – Tipping point is when 10% of gross domestic product stored on blockchains. Expected date: 2027.
  • The Sharing Economy – Tipping point when more global trips are made by car sharing than in private cars. Expected date: 2025.
  • Governments and Blockchain – Tipping point when tax is collected for the first time via blockchain. Expected date: 2023.
  • Printing and Manufacturing – Tipping point when the first 3D-printed car is in production. Expected date: 2022.
  • 3D Printing and Health – Tipping point when first transplant of 3D liver. Expected date: 2024.
  • 3D Printing and Consumer Products – Tipping point when 5% of consumer goods printed in 3D. Expected date: 2025.

Even if only a large fraction of these changes happen when predicted it is going to be a very different world a decade from now. This kind of list is almost overwhelming. I am probably going to write future blogs about a few of the changes that I find the most intriguing. One thing is for sure, – hang onto your seats, the whole world is about to enter a new age.

Have We Entered the Age of Robots?

robbyI read a lot of tech news, journals, and blogs and it recently dawned on me that we have already quietly entered the age of robots. Certainly we are not yet close to having C-3PO from Star Wars, or even Robbie the Robot from Lost in Space. But I think that we have crossed that threshold that future historians will point to as the start of the age of robots.

There are research teams all over the world working to get robots to do the kinds of tasks that we want from a C-3PO. As the recent DARPA challenge showed, robots are still very awkward at doing simple physical tasks—but they are now able to get them done. There are research teams that are figuring out how to make robots move in the many subtle ways that humans move and they will figure it out.

The voice recognition used by robots still has a long way to go to be seamless and accurate. As you see when you use Apple’s Siri, there are still times when voice recognition just doesn’t get us. But voice recognition is getting better all the time.

And robots still are not fabulous at sensing their surroundings, but this, too, is improving. Who would ever have thought that in 2015 we would have driverless cars? Yet they are seemingly now everywhere and a number of states have already made it legal for them to share the road with the rest of us.

The reason I think we might have already entered the Robot Age is that we can now make robots that are capable of doing each of the many tasks we want out of a fully functional robot. Much of what robots can do now is rudimentary but all that is needed to get the robots from science fiction to real life is more research and development and further improvements in computing power. And both are happening. There is a massive amount of robot research underway and computer power continues to grow exponentially. I would think that within a decade computing power will have improved enough to overcome the current limitations.

All of the components needed to create robots have already gotten very cheap. Sensors that cost a $1,000 can now be bought for $10. The various motors used for robot motion have moved from expensive to affordable. And as real mass production comes into play, the cost of building a robot is going to continue to drop significantly.

We already have evidence that robots can succeed. Driverless cars might be the best example. One doesn’t have to look very far into the future to foresee driverless cars being a major phenomenon. I can’t think that Uber really expects to make a fortune by poorly paying and mistreating human drivers such that the average Uber driver last less than half a year. Surely Uber is positioning themselves to have the first fleet of driverless taxis, which will be very profitable without having a labor cost.

We see robots being integrated into the workplace more so than into homes. Amazon is working feverishly towards totally automating their distribution centers. I think this has been their goal for a decade and once its all done with robots the part of the business that has always lost money for Amazon will become quite profitable. There are now robots being tested in hospitals to deliver meals, supplies, and drugs. There are robot concierges in Japan. And almost every factory these days has a number of steel collar workers. You have to know that Apple is looking forward to the day soon when they can make iPhones entirely with robots and avoid the bad publicity they keep getting from their factories today.

The average person will look at video from the recent recent DARPA challenge and see clumsy robots and be convinced that robots are still a long way off. But almost every component needed to make robots better is improving at an exponential pace, and we know from history that things that grow exponentially always surprise people by ‘bursting’ onto the scene. I would not be at all surprised to see a workable home maid robot within a decade and to see a really awesome one within twenty years. I know when there is a robot that can do the laundry, load the dishwasher, wash the floor, and clean the cat litter than I am going to want one. Especially cleaning the cat litter—is somebody working on that?

Computerizing our Jobs

Rowa_RoboterI often write about new technology such as cognitive software like Siri or driverless cars. These types of innovations have the potential to make our lives easier, but there are going to be significant societal consequences to some of these innovations. Late last year Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne published a paper that predicts that about 47% of all current American jobs are at risk of being replaced by some form of automated computerized technology.

We have already been seeing this for many years. For example, in the telecom industry there used to be gigantic operator centers with rooms full of operators who helped people place calls. Those centers and those jobs have largely been eliminated through automation. But not all of the jobs that have been eliminated are so obvious. For example, modern accounting software like QuickBooks for small business and more complex software for larger businesses have displaced many accountants. Where a large company might have once had large rooms of accounts payable and accounts receivable personnel, these software systems have eliminated a significant portion of those staffs. And many small businesses perform their accounting functions today without an accountant.

Computerization has also wiped out entire industries and one can only imagine the numbers of jobs that were lost when iTunes largely replaced the music industry or NetFlix and Hulu have replaced video rental stores.

Automation has created some new jobs. For instance, looking at this video of an Amazon fulfillment center we can see that there a lot of people involved in moving packages quickly. But we also see a huge amount of automation and you know that Amazon is trying to figure out ways to automate the remaining functions in these warehouses. It’s not a big stretch to envision robots taking the places of the ‘pickers’ in that video.

Some of the innovations on the horizon have the potential to eliminate other large piles of people. Probably the most obvious technology with that potential is driverless cars. One can envision jobs like taxi drivers disappearing first, eventually followed by truck drivers. But there are other jobs that go along with this like many of the autobody shops that are in business to repair car accidents due to human poor driving. We have already seen Starbucks trialing an automated system that replaces baristas and I saw one of these automated systems in an airport last month. There is a huge boom right now in developing manufacturing robots and this are going to replace much of the manual labor in the manufacturing process. But this also will allow factories to return to America and bring at least some jobs back here.

But this study predicts a much wider range of jobs that are at risk. The real threat to jobs is going to be through the improvement of cognitive software. As an example, IBM’s Watson has been shown to be more accurate than nurses and doctors in diagnosing illnesses. We are now at the point where we can bring supercomputers into the normal workplace. I read four different articles this week about companies who are looking to peddle supercomputing as product. That kind of computing power could start to replace all sorts of white collar and middle management jobs.

The study predicts a huge range of jobs that computers can replace. They include such jobs as patent lawyers, paralegals, software engineers and financial advisors. In fact, the paper predicts that much of the functions in management, financial services, computer technology, education, legal and media can be replaced by cognitive software.

Economists have always predicted that there would always be new jobs created by modernization to replace the jobs that are lost. Certainly that is true to some extent because all of those jobs in the Amazon warehouse were not there before. But those jobs replace store clerks in the many stores that have lost sales to Amazon. The real worry, for me, is that the sheer number of jobs lost to automation will happen in such a short period of time that it will result in permanent unemployment for a large percentage of the population.

One job that the paper predicts will be replaced is technical writer. As a technical blogger I say “Watson, the game is afoot! IBM, bring it on.”

Keep People in the Equation

Tribrid_CarAs I keep reading about the coming Internet of Things I keep running into ideas that make me a bit uneasy. And since I am a tech head, I imagine that things that make me a little uneasy might make many people a whole lot uneasy.

For instance, I read about the impending introduction of driverless cars. I have to admit that when I am making a long drive on the Interstate that having the ability to just hand the driving off to a computer sounds very appealing. I would think that the challenge of driving on wide-open highways at a consistent speed is something that is quite achievable.

But it makes me uneasy to think about all cars everywhere becoming driverless. I sit here wondering if I really want to trust my personal safety to traveling in a car in which software is making all of the decisions. I know how easily software systems crash, get into loops and otherwise stutter and I can’t help but picturing being in a vehicle when a software glitch raises its ugly head.

I know that a road accident can happen to anybody, but when I drive myself I have a sense of control, however misplaced. I feel like I have the ability to avoid problems a lot better than software might when it comes down to a bad situation.

I am probably wrong, but it makes me uneasy to think about climbing into a cab in a crowded City and trusting my life to an automated vehicle. And I really get nervous thinking about sharing the road with robot tractor-trailers. The human-driven ones are scary enough.

I am probably somewhat irrational in this fear because I would guess that if all vehicles were computer-controlled there would be a lot fewer accidents, and we certainly would be protected from drunk drivers. Yet a nagging part of my brain still resists the idea.

I also worry about hacking. Perhaps one of the easiest ways to bump somebody off would be to hack their car and make it have an accident at a fast speed. You know it’s going to happen and that will make people not trust the automated systems. Hacking can break our faith in a whole lot of the IoT since there will be ample opportunities to hurt people by interfering with their car or their medicine or other technology that can harm as easily as it can help.

I can’t think I am untypical in this kind of fear. I think somehow as we make these big changes that somehow people have to be part of the equation. I don’t have an answer to this and frankly this blog just voices the concern. But it’s something we need to consider and talk about as a society.

The people issue is going to spring up around a lot of the aspects of IoT. It has already surfaced with Google Glass and many people have made it clear that they don’t want to be recorded by somebody else surreptitiously. As the IoT grows past its current infancy there are bound to be numerous clashes coming where tech confronts human fears, feelings and emotions.

There are certainly many of the aspects of the IoT that excite me, but as I think about them I would bet these same changes will frighten others. For instance, I love the idea of nanobots in my bloodstream that will tell me days early if I am getting sick or that will be able to kill pre-cancerous cells before they get a foothold in my body. But I am sure that same concept scares the living hell out of other people, the idea of having technology in our blood.

I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but the human equation must become part of the IoT. It has to. If nothing else, people will boycott the technology if it doesn’t make us feel safe.

Physics of the Future

I highly recommend anybody interested in Technology to read ‘Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and our Daily Lives by the Year 2100’ by Michio Kaku. The book is well written and is an easy and accessible read.

Kaku is a theoretical physicist who researched for this book by talking to leading scientists in many fields of science and asked them where current research is taking their fields by the end of the century. Many scientists see practical and disruptive innovations coming from their own fields of study. But when taken all together, the changes that the scientists see coming look amazingly like Star Trek minus the transporters and the warp speed travel and the Vulcans.

At the turn of the 20th century the world was completely disrupted by inventions like the automobile, electric lights, airplanes, etc. At the end of the last century we saw the world changed drastically by the computer.

Some of the many changes that scientists see coming during this next century include:

  • Cheap fusion power, meaning almost unlimited, pollution-free power for everybody.
  • The ability to locally make things (like the Star Trek replicator) which we are already starting to see with the 3D printer industry.
  • Computer chips so cheap that they are built into everything.
  • A high likelihood of computer sentience.
  • Nanotechnology being used to constantly monitor your health from within and that will intercede to keep you healthy. Cancer won’t be cured so much as it will never be allowed to get started.
  • Space tourism will be routine and not just for the very rich.
  • Driverless cars wiping out gridlock in even the biggest cities.

This book is a fascinating read. The next century is going to see massive technology disruptions that will completely transform almost every industry. In the process many of our largest corporations will go the way of the buggy whip manufacturers.

The book made me think about the telecom industry. One thing that is obvious is that there is going to be massive amounts of data produced everywhere and for this data to be made sense of we will need fiber networks. The idea of gigabit networks will be a quaint idea of the past and we will be having discussions about whether terabit networks are fast enough.

One thing the book doesn’t postulate about is the human element. Certainly there will be a lot of people eager to take advantage of these new technologies. But one has to wonder what is going to happen if parts of society turn their back on such revolutionary breakthroughs and what that might mean for the future of the planet. One also has to wonder if these breakthroughs will be made available to everybody or just to the rich. I haven’t read a book in a long time that has given me more to think and dream about.