The EC’s netBravo uses anonymized data to plot cell data coverage across Europe. While it’s not a totally perfect depiction, it gives a good insight into the real-world conditions and usability of data networks.
Data, the backbone of connected cars
Automakers, OEMs, Tier 1s and data providers and mappers, such as TomTom, are keen to take advantage of the growing connected car market, Saurav Miglani, Automotive Product Marketing Manager at TomTom explains. In the global pursuit of making the roads safer and vehicles less stressful to drive, data brings several possibilities.
Probably the most talked about is over-the-air (OTA) updates, which allow carmakers to regularly push feature updates, like UX improvements and new apps, to their cars. In EVs, we’ve seen automakers improve the efficiency and driving range of their cars with code tweaks pushed out OTA.
Connectivity also means that vehicles can be made compliant with the latest regulations, like Intelligent Speed Assistance (ISA). Advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) like predictive cruise control also rely on a data connection to get information about the road ahead from cloud-based location data. (If you want to know more about how this works, take a look at this article.)
Data is also crucial in EVs. Offline map data can tell us where charging stations are and help route us to them, but we can’t know if those chargers are available, or even functioning. In connected cars, real-time information about the charger status can be sent to vehicles and apps.
Then there are the more jovial things. Data connections allow us to while away the hours when we’re not driving by watching Netflix and listening to Amazon Music.
According to data gathered by TomTom on test drives around Europe, 4% of an average car journey is through white zones. Most of the time, when a car drives through a white zone it has no access to precious data that makes its driver aids and infotainment work. So, we should remember that perennial problem, what can we do when we don’t have a data connection?
Handling data in a ‘white zone’
For OTA updates and watching Netflix in your car, white zones aren’t likely to be a huge problem. But for connected vehicles packed with driver aids and automated features that rely on up-to-date data, white zones represent a problem, Miglani explains.
“Connectivity is crucial to the operations of the car; be it navigation, automated driving or ISA,” he says. “You wouldn’t like to have the unpleasant experience that results from connectivity issues or loss.”
In some cases, losing data connection could make driving more dangerous, stressful and distracting. For autonomous vehicles, even the smallest lapse in data connection can be the difference between a safely navigated trip and an accident.
On one hand, the solution would be to ensure all road networks have great cell coverage, then we’d never have to worry. Sadly, that solution is expensive to install, expensive to maintain and still doesn’t guarantee a perfect data connection. Outages, while rare, do happen and can wreak havoc. Cell network companies also need to perform maintenance, which can result in scheduled downtimes, which still need to be navigated. Network congestion can also become a significant problem, sometimes the volume of people requesting data all at the same time can turn an otherwise good connection into a white zone.
Miglani tells me there is another solution, one that can ensure vehicles have as much up-to-date data as they need, at the time they need it — and it uses maps.
Through specialist sources, TomTom has access to data about the quality of cellular networks from more than 300-million devices worldwide. The datasets those sources generate add more than 200-billion data points every day. The data gathered measures network characteristics like upload and download speeds, latency, jitter, packet loss and time to first byte (TTFB).
Knowing this allows TomTom to track the quality of data connections and when there are network white zones. When this data is put on a map is where the real magic happens. Doing so creates a dedicated layer that shows geographically where white zones are or are likely to be. TomTom calls this the Map Connectivity Layer. It means we can physically see where we’ll possibly lose connection and where we’ll regain it, allowing us to preemptively plan for signal losses.