Is our infrastructure ready for the future of transport?

Terence Broderick

Is our infrastructure ready for the future of transport

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about electric and autonomous vehicles and how, over the next 30 years, we’re going to see many more of them on our roads.

Manufacturers are investing hugely in developing alternative powertrains and the products which use them. The recently launched Mercedes EQC (an electric SUV!) is testament to where the market is going and the Nissan Leaf is now a regular feature on UK roads.

Also, the recent launch of the Audi A8, said to be the world’s first Level 3 autonomous vehicle, is indicative of progress up the often quoted ‘levels of autonomy’. The “Traffic Jam Pilot” system is capable of controlling all necessary driving function up to a speed of 37mph. This will enable a driver to perform other tasks in the car without paying attention to the road. It will not be the last time we hear about levels of autonomy, as we move towards the elusive Level 5, where the vehicle’s performance is supposed to equal that of a human driver in every driving scenario.

However, amidst all of the talk of the technology inside the vehicles which are driving us toward a future where electric and autonomous vehicles are commonplace, we often ignore the infrastructure that will be required to enable this revolution to take place.

Electric vehicles

The recently published Future Energy Scenarios report predicts that, if the UK government’s target of 34 million electric vehicles by 2040 is met, the UK will require an additional 60 TWh of electricity every year. To place this in perspective, according to Ovo energy, the average UK home used 3940 kWh in 2014. This means that we’d need to generate enough electricity to power approximately 15 million UK homes, based on 2014 consumption.

Additionally, the recent Road to Zero ‘Road to Zero’ policy delivered by the UK government highlights the need for more charging points for electric vehicles, so that the additional electricity can be effectively delivered to electric vehicles.

The challenges for infrastructure can be split into four broad categories:

  • generating the additional electricity
  • storing the additional electricity
  • transporting the additional electricity
  • delivering the electricity to any desired place

Each of these challenges will need to be met in order to deliver an effective and functioning electric vehicle infrastructure.

Autonomous vehicles

In achieving full Level 5 autonomy, the need for a human to control a vehicle will be removed. This has its own challenges, as the autonomous vehicle needs to find a way of interpreting its surroundings without human input. This substantially increases the number of sensors necessary on the autonomous vehicle when compared to a conventional vehicle today, as well as the amount of data generated by the vehicle.

However, the rise in the level of autonomy is redundant without the surrounding infrastructure necessary to ensure that passengers and other road users are safe in an environment where cars will not have a human in control. This has led to the development of technologies such as vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I), vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V), vehicle-to-cloud (V2C), vehicle-to-pedestrian (V2P) and vehicle-to-everything (V2E).

Common amongst these technologies is the notion of ‘vehicle-to…’ That is to say, the vehicle will be constantly transmitting varying amounts of data to something — whether that be a local garage, to check on fuel availability, or to the cloud, to share data about black ice on a road using ‘swarm intelligence’.

The upscaling of the need for vehicles to transmit and receive large amounts of data will lead to multiple infrastructure challenges. Examples of these challenges include:

  • The development of a communications infrastructure which can enable vehicles to communicate with each other.
  • The development of infrastructure which will enable autonomous vehicles to recognise the presence of non-autonomous vehicles — this is particularly important in non-urban environments, where both autonomous and non-autonomous vehicles will likely share road space.
  • More accurate delivery of satellite navigation data — at the moment ‘sat nav’ is merely a driving aid and isn’t central to the path of the vehicle, as this is still under driver control. This will need to change, as the fully autonomous vehicle will depend on satellite navigation for its direction.
  • Communications networks which will be able to deliver large amounts of content to vehicles — the removal of the need to drive will mean vehicles become entertainment, living and working spaces and will need to provide the corresponding facilities.

It’s said that 5G and 4G LTE networks will take care of some aspects of these challenges, but the direction, management and storage of the vast quantities of data will still present a considerable technical obstacle.

Generating large amounts of electricity is the key

Infrastructure is essential to the roll-out of autonomous and electric vehicles and it’s widely accepted that UK infrastructure is not currently up to the task.

The widespread roll-out of electric vehicles is expected to come around sooner than autonomous vehicles, but all this means is that the necessity to generate large amounts of electricity (arguably one of the most technically difficult problems) should be seen as a priority, as it is conducive to addressing the infrastructure challenges for both types of vehicle.

The development and investment in infrastructure required to support electric and autonomous vehicles presents enormous opportunities to innovate — and we have expertise to assist you in making sure that the appropriate protections are in place when you do.

For more information about protecting technology in the infrastructure and automotive sectors, please feel free to contact us.

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