Smart highways and driverless cars coming in 2030 -- for real?

The first step, in-car wireless infotainment systems, set for mass rollouts this year; experts say extending that to smart highways is a massive task

BARCELONA -- Crowds at Mobile World Congress here this week clamored to see in-car infotainment systems that will soon be connected to the Internet via wireless networks around the globe.

Even before such in-car systems are rolled out on a massive scale, designers and engineers are already dreaming and worried about next steps in the process of having entire cities operate smart highway grids to handle driverless cars.

Ford, AT&T, General Motors and chipmaker Qualcomm, among others, used the MWC platform to show off in-car systems designed to help car drivers and passengers interact with the outside world, and make them aware of the status of the car's engine and systems.

Qualcomm used a black matte-painted Mercedes Benz CLA45 AMG Turbo to draw attention to its BlackBerry QNX-based concept infotainment system.

With in-car systems clearly on the way, the inevitable question arises: When exactly will we see driverless cars and driverless highway networks?

Several experts asked that question by Computerworld gave wide-ranging and a bit eye-opening answers.

For instance, an AT&T official predicted that smart highways could arrive in some cities in between 10 and 20 years, while engineers at Cisco and GM saw a more gradual rollout of one system at a time in a process that would take several decades.

A top technologist at GM said driverless cars will likely still need human help to control cars during snowstorms and over black ice.

Over the next two years, millions of cars on U.S. roads will be equipped with wireless LTE connectivity and in-car dashboard interfaces, the experts noted. But that first step is still far away from the creation and construction of smart highway systems in just one mid-sized U.S. city. Businesses and government must also come up with ways to govern, operate and finance smart highways.

If it sounds challenging to design an OS and apps and wireless connections for running Pandora radio or Netflix movies inside a car, just imagine the complex job of putting network-connected sensors along highways, at traffic lights and near hospitals to wirelessly connect to cars and emergency vehicles to the Internet.

The development of a system to govern smart highways could be huge -- every city council, local police department, state government and several federal agencies will want a say in it.

Timothy Nixon, chief technology officer for the global connected consumer at GM, said he and others at the automaker recognize the the many challenges they face in building driverless cars that can operate over smart highways.

"We want to make sure we think carefully about [driverless cars and smart highways], and we want to be responsible so that drivers keep hands on the wheel," Nixon said in an interview at MWC. "It's daunting to think about what we do. We want to be careful and do it right."

Even just creating radio technology to support in-car infotainment is a very complex task, he noted. "People probably underestimate how much work is involved," he said.

Nixon, who works in Detroit, also said it's hard to imagine how driverless cars would ever work along snow-covered streets in the winter. "What about snowstorms and black ice?" Nixon asked. "People as drivers will always have to be there as a fallback."

Marco Carnevale, an innovation architect at GM, helped develop a demonstration app for Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch that can lock, unlock and turn off a car at the touch of a finger. GM showed off the app at MWC using a canary yellow 2014 Corvette Stingray. The Tizen-based app is written in HTML5, also used in the Gear 2.

Carnevale predicted that smart highways will roll out gradually over many years, as new functions, such as radar technology that can detect if the car is properly aligned in a lane, are added to vehicles.

Three years ago, GM demonstrated at an Asian auto show an En-V two-person concept vehicle with smart technologies designed to work on smart highways by 2030, just 16 years away. Carnevale wouldn't even venture a guess if that forecast is possible.

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