MWC 2017: The car in front is autonomous – or soon will...

MWC 2017: The car in front is autonomous – or soon will be

Connected, electric and autonomous – cars stole the show at MWC 2017 in Barcelona

Autonomous driving will create $7 trillion “passenger economy”

BARCELONA, SPAIN – Mobile World Congress was once a ‘pure’ mobile show, an opportunity for mobile operators, carriers and technology providers to discuss and showcase mobile devices and all layers of software in between. Now autonomous cars are stealing the show.

How times change. The ‘hot’ label at MWC has variously switched in different years between mobile apps and Android smartphones to niche categories such as waterproof tablets, projectors, robotics and so on, but this year at MWC turned out to be the year of the automobile.

There were around 20 new vehicles on show from the likes of Daimler, Ford, Peugeot, Jaguar and Seat, including electric, connected and autonomous cars, scooters, trucks, vans and motorcycles.

Read more: Developers, BMW wants you to help build its driverless cars

A changing experience

With the rise of IoT and artificial intelligence (AI), car manufacturers are trying to reimagine the automobile experience, from giving drivers greater convenience (as seen with Shell and Jaguar’s recent partnership to integrate Apple Pay payments at fuel pumps) to delivering a more relaxing, entirely driverless experience.

On the latter front, Peugeot previewed its ‘Instinct’ prototype driverless car, which connects to Samsung’s Artik IoT cloud platform and aggregates data collected from the user’s smartwatch, phone or social network. The driving experience can then be tailored depending on the user’s circumstances or mood.

As expected, several car makers are also starting to think about the role of their vehicles in the shared economy, with Daimler debuting a ‘smart ready to share’ service, which lets owners of a car share a car with friends or colleagues, and a ‘smart ready to drop’ service, allowing packages to be delivered to their trunk.

Voice can be expected to play a much bigger role in interacting inside vehicles, and Ford has claimed to be the first to integrate with Amazon’s Echo.

The driverless chatter amounted to more than that though, with BMW, Intel and Mobileye all promising cars on the road later this year, and Telefonica, Ericsson and the KTH Institute planning a 5G-powered trial nearby in Tarragona, Spain.

Read more: BMW to collaborate with IBM Watson for cognitive computing in cars

Computer vision behind autonomous trucks

At his keynote presentation on Monday evening, Anthony Levandowski, CEO of Uber-owned Otto, explained how its ‘driverless’ trucks (albeit carrying a driver on standby in the back) can now be found in Colorado and Phoenix.

In partnership with Volvo, these trucks are equipped with 3D cameras, embedded sensors on the roof and in the bumper and guiding Lidar radar technology. Computer vision technology essentially builds a heat map of the road ahead, noting the moving position of pedestrians and other vehicles.

“We’re learning about how the technology works,” said Levandowski, though crucially avoiding touching on reports that Uber’s self-driving car skipped through red lights in December, as well as the fact he’s named in a Google lawsuit against Uber for stealing the former company’s driverless car secrets.

“Think of this way as putting them on sandbox, shaking them up, and seeing what happens.”

He isn’t the only one learning the ropes as he goes, with Formula E boss Alejandro Agag and Roborace founder Denis Sverdlov talking of the new robot race car series where, in Sverdlov’s words, software developers “are the heroes”.

Critically, rather than this being some rich kid’s playground, Agag was keen to stress that race-car developments, such as Formula E’s electric powertrains doubling in capacity in less than a year, eventually get pushed down to road cars.

Sverdlov, also founder of autonomous truck firm Charge, spoke of the series seeing software developers jump “deep into AI”, innovations that too will surely come to more everyday travel.

But tech innovation isn’t always matched by security, and Otto’s Levandowski admitted they have to keep an eye on this area, especially given recent exploits by security researchers.

“We want to make sure these cars are safe, and do as programmed so we have security by layers in terms of different things that can’t be changed,” he told GSMA CMO Michael O’Hara.

Read more: Ford to start European testing for driverless cars in 2017

Security concerns not unfounded

Eugene Kaspersky, CEO and founder of IT security company Kaspersky Lab, did his best to put some security focus around connected and autonomous cars, even if it all did sound a little Terminator-ish.

Opening a theatrical presentation in complete darkness, he claimed to be ‘from the future’, describing a hypothetical past: “The smart cars revolted from their former master and ruled the streets.”

“I’ve come from the future to tell you how to get hold of your future back,” he said, sounding a little too like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

He did have an important point to make, though. Kaspersky, whose company discovered flaws in a number of remote car control apps some weeks before the conference, explained the frequency of flaws affecting Linux, Windows and even Mac systems, with the first two operating systems often found in connected cars.

He explained how the Internet was largely built in a former era, using technologies not suited to withstanding today’s sophisticated cyber attacks. “Hackers didn’t exist in that time,” he said.

“We have the technologies and ideas to design secure software. It’s my dream to have un-crackable devices with zero-risk of attack.”

Connected, electric, autonomous – cars are here to stay at tech conferences, and they’re coming to a road near you soon.

Read more: Driverless cars to reach sales of 24 million by 2030