Connected cars are creating a costly data problem, this company thinks it has a solution
The internet is ubiquitous in the built-up world these days. Everything from our smartphones and computers to our fridges and light bulbs are connected to the web. Even items that live outside our homes, like our cars, are now “connected”. On one hand, this abundant connectivity is bringing us the cars of the future, but it’s also bringing a costly problem with it: data.
The problem: Mountains of data
Over the past decade, our cars have evolved from being off-grid fossil fuel-powered people movers to advanced pieces of low-emission technology. We no longer see them as the analog single purpose tools they once were — they’re more like our phones: multi-purpose devices, which we expect to deliver a constantly evolving experience.
In years gone by, if you wanted to stream music to your car’s stereo you needed to use an auxiliary audio connection. Nowadays, cars leave the factory equipped with audio and video streaming apps, all of which use masses of data. Spotify can use anywhere between 40 to 150 megabytes per hour. While Netflix can use anywhere from 1 gigabyte per hour to 7 gigabytes per hour.
This data problem isn’t limited to entertainment apps. Live traffic information and continually updated maps, now an expected feature on nearly all types of vehicle, also use data.
According to TomTom GO, updating the map for an entire country uses anywhere between 200 megabytes to 3 gigabytes. In-vehicle, carmakers take a slightly different approach. In-vehicle maps only get updated with what’s needed. But the problem remains, many gigabytes of data still must pass into the vehicle over the course of a year to keep it up to date, but we must also consider data that is uploaded from the vehicle.
Vehicles with complex sensor arrays are becoming increasingly common and they have the potential to gather masses of data about roads, congestion and driving patterns. Some estimates have suggested that those well-equipped with ADAS tech could gather 1.4 terabytes of data every hour. This data, if used appropriately, could help us build more efficient and safer infrastructure. It’s no good unless we can aggregate the data from its source – and someone will have to front its transfer bill.
Similarly, the world of commerce is taking advantage of technological improvements. Like consumer vehicles, fleet and logistics companies rely on data and connectivity for many functions, such as vehicle and asset tracking, usage statistics and delivery route planning.
By now, it should be plain to see that to make all this very important ‘stuff’ work and give drivers good in-car experiences, not only do we need data — lots of data — we need to be able to process it efficiently. Otherwise, carmakers and service providers risk running up unnecessarily large bills for transferring data over cellular networks – a cost that, in some cases, might be passed on to consumers.
The solution: More intelligent data sharing and networking
I spoke with João Barros, founder and CEO of Veniam*, to discuss how cars and fleets of the future will better manage flows of data to make more efficient use of connectivity and, importantly, save drivers, carmakers and in-car service providers a lot of money.Veniam was acquired in 2022 by Nexar. Barros is now Chief Platform Officer at Nexar.
Chances are, unless you work specifically in the data infrastructure industry, you won’t have heard of Veniam, but the company has been around for nearly a decade. It was also named in CNBC’s list of Top 50 tech disruptors on more than one occasion. And even if drivers have never encountered the company’s name, there’s a strong chance they will ‘touch’ a piece of Veniam tech on a regular basis, without even realizing it.
Many residents of Porto, Portugal have used Veniam’s technology to gain internet access while using public transit. As TechCrunch reported way back in 2014, some 50,000 Porto citizens have used its tech. 75% of those that use buses and own a smartphone have used Veniam to gain public internet access, the company said.
Veniam’s tech, while providing low-cost Wi-Fi to the public, is also capable of becoming part of a wider mesh network with other vehicles to further extend connectivity. What’s more, it can also gather data on how vehicles move through cities, potentially providing valuable insight into how roads are used, where traffic hotspots are and how to better design infrastructure for safety.
Since 2014, Veniam’s vision has evolved. João Barros tells me the company wants to create the ‘internet of moving things’. The internet of things, like connected lightbulbs and fridges, is static, but a network of moving things is dynamic and by its nature doesn’t just move data around over the internet – it moves data around physically too.
“Imagine all the cars, buses, trucks, robots, drones and industrial machines, all sharing data directly with each other,” Barros says. “With the infrastructure, we’re able to move massive amounts of data between the physical world and the cloud. Using AI, we can process this data to improve people’s lives, for example, by making city mobility more sustainable.”
In ‘the internet of moving things’, cars aren’t just isolated connected devices sitting on the edge of the network. Typically, at their edge, networks aren’t decentralized or distributed. When we say “edge” what we mean is the devices connecting to networks all must access through a single data access point, a point of centralization. There is no peer-to-peer connectivity between connected devices themselves. But using principles found in mesh networks, Veniam can turn cars from connected devices into moving network nodes that can share data in a number of ways — through data access points like cellular networks, through Wi-Fi connections or even amongst themselves.
Imagine two cars, A and B: car A could have been parked at home overnight, during which it could have downloaded the latest map update for its navigation system. Car B, parked in a basement parking lot of a multistorey apartment building with no access to data, couldn’t get the update. During the day, the two cars are parked near each other. Car A can see Car B needs the latest update and so Car B gets the data it needs directly from Car A.
Now, imagine that on scale, in a city full of cars, buses and other moving devices that can share data or fragments of data. All of a sudden, we have the ability to share masses of data quickly and at a much lower cost than everything having to connect to a centralized point, like a cell network. This is just one example, but really, the data shared could be for anything: battery management, vehicle usage statistics, sensor updates and more.
With this approach, cars don’t have to rely on a costly direct connection to the internet anymore. And those that don’t have access to Wi-Fi networks for overnight updates are able to keep their maps, software and systems fresh, hassle free. Barros’ concept for an internet of moving things is a bold, but not unrealistic, concept with broad potential.
Different data needs, means different data management
Over years of offering public Wi-Fi hotspots on buses, Veniam has learned how to manage flows of data and ensure that connections stay reliable. It’s now putting that knowledge into a software package that will work with the TomTom Digital Cockpit in-vehicle platform. Its software development kit (SDK) will allow carmakers, OEMs and even app providers to more closely and intelligently manage the flows of data required to make them work.
“The unique insight is that vehicles and moving things have very different needs from human users”, Barros tells me. “When you think about human users, we want instant gratification, we push the play button and we want to see the YouTube video with perfect quality immediately. When we are on a video conference call, we want the perfect experience with low latency, clear sound and seamless video.”
On the other hand, most of the data that flows in and out of a vehicle is exchanged machine to machine, such as usage stats, map data, system updates and the like. As Barros points out, most crucially, this data doesn’t require real-time communication.
For example, the position of a vehicle that’s part of a shared mobility scheme might only need to be sent every 30 minutes when in park, and every 10 seconds when on the move. On-board diagnostics for the vehicle, such as battery health and odometer distance, only need to be sent a few times a day. Over-the-air software updates might only need to be downloaded once a week, month or every few months depending on the vehicle.
Barros stresses that for many of these data sharing applications, 4G and 5G connectivity is overkill. These cellular networks are only really useful for on-demand real-time requests, such as media streaming and live traffic updates. So Veniam’s SDK looks at all available networks, cellular and Wi-Fi to send and request data through the most appropriate data channel, at a frequency that doesn’t end up costing the driver or carmaker extra money.
It’s important to point out here that Veniam has a trick up its sleeve. The company has contracts with many major public Wi-Fi hotspot providers which give Veniam-equipped vehicles the possibility of connecting to many Wi-Fi access points, rather than having to rely exclusively on cellular data.
“Millions of these Wi-Fi hotspots are under-utilized”, Barros says. When vehicles are in close proximity to each other, and to public hotspots, they can share connections to create their own dynamic and moving mesh network that supports free-flowing streams of data. One that is substantially more cost effective than cell-only systems.
Barros explains, “When [nodes are] in close proximity, we don’t have to go to the cell tower or to the cloud every time. That gives us more degrees of freedom to face the data tsunami that’s coming not just from people’s requests for information and media, but from things and vehicles.”
Smarter data routing saves money
Barros estimates that per gigabyte, OEMs, in-car service and app providers will be able to reduce costs by around 50% to 80% per gigabyte, depending on the specific use case. Current customers of Veniam offload up to 80% of their data transfers from cellular networks to Wi-Fi. As Wi-Fi access points are generally much cheaper to use than cellular networks, those that pay for the data can make significant savings.
In pretty much every use case, it doesn’t matter to the user what network is used, but what does matter is cost and reliability — that’s what Veniam takes care of. It ensures vehicles connect and move from one connection to the next seamlessly and it routes specific data through specific connections to manage costs.
“Why should every single car, bus and truck get a map update from an expensive cellular link to the cloud, when they can get it from a neighboring vehicle?” Barros asks.
Great control over data with SDKs
One way that fleet operators and carmakers can take advantage of cheaper Wi-Fi connections, will be using Veniam’s tech as part of TomTom’s in-vehicle platform, TomTom Digital Cockpit.
As part of TomTom’s open platform, developers and carmakers will have access to Veniam’s SDK, which in turn provides them with a multitude of tools to manage connectivity and data flows in and out of their vehicles.
In other words, the Veniam SDK, which will come as an application in TomTom Digital Cockpit, gives developers the ability to control how and when the data is downloaded, streamed or uploaded from a given vehicle.
“There’s connection management, which is deciding when to connect, where to connect, based on where you are, the time of day and the network conditions. Then there is data management, which is for each application to decide what data to send now, to send later and what network connection to use for each piece of data”, Barros adds.
This means that carmakers and OEMs can take greater control over how data flows in and out of their vehicles. Large map updates or vehicle use stats can be ring fenced by the system so that updates only happen over a low-cost Wi-Fi connection, when the vehicle isn’t being driven.
Data from media streaming apps can be recognized as an immediate request and be given the most stable, high-speed connection to ensure instant gratification. Safety messages can be prioritized over everything else and allowed to use whatever network is available.
By having greater control over how and when data flows in and out of vehicles is what allows OEMs, carmakers and fleet operators to make such significant cost savings.
In some cases, these cost savings can be passed on to the driver. It’s quite common for drivers to have to install a SIM card in their cars to gain access to certain connected services. With Veniam’s tech, some of these services could be offloaded from cell networks to cheaper Wi-Fi connections.
The big financial gains will be for carmakers and companies that operate large fleets of vehicles, who need to obtain usage statistics, sensor data and other vehicle information on mass, regularly. Rather than having to rely on cell data, they can set the terms of how data is uploaded, downloaded and shared, allowing it to only pass through low-cost Wi-Fi.
What’s more, if thousands of cars, trucks and buses start using Wi-Fi more than cell networks, cell networks will see less traffic, which should improve the connection for other users of the network, which more likely than not, will be you and me in the street with our phones.October 21, 2022, 06:30 UTC.This article has been updated to reflect the new name of TomTom’s in-vehicle infotainment platform. It is now called TomTom Digital Cockpit.*June 05, 2023, 1300 UTC.
In August 2022, Veniam was acquired by smart dash cam maker Nexar. Read more about that here and here. At the time of this interview, Barros was the CEO of Veniam, he is now Chief Platform Officer at Nexar. Veniam and its tech became part of Nexar as part of the acquistion.
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