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

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AT&T Mobility's Joseph Mosele, vice president of business development for emerging devices, heads up a group at the company that's charged with finding ways to connect cars, smartphones and wearables to the AT&T wireless network.

"With our LTE network, we want to give the same experience in the car of using a smartphone," he said. AT&T is supporting GM efforts for in-car infotainment that will start appearing later in 2014 on many car models.

Mosele predicted that autonomous cars will make their way to highways in some cities "in the next 10 to 20 years. There could be a time when you don't even own the car, similar to Zip car. It will drive itself to pick you up. Autonomous driving will be possible with the wireless network communicating from your car to other cars on the road and to see the red light changing. That's in the early days."

Mosele said he's confident in his forecast because of how smartphones have evolved so quickly in recent years. "I've been at AT&T for 19 years and started when cellular phones barely made voice calls. Now look at what they do," he said. "Although 10 to 20 years for smart highways sounds short, look at how much the industry has evolved."

Mosele said it's obvious that government entities will influence the development of smart highway grids, just as governments permitted cable and telecommunications network projects in the U.S. "Smart highways are futuristic ... it's being talked about at AT&T," he said.

Many drivers today say they would never give up the wheel of their car to a computer or a wireless network, while others say they like idea of getting around town or to work safely and comfortably without the frustrations of traffic and the dangers of angry or drunk drivers. "Think about how much safer smart highways will be," Mosele said.

At Cisco, engineers are cranking out routers, switches and wireless LAN gear to power the explosion in the Internet of Things, which will include highway traffic signals, speed detecting sensors and more.

Sanjeev Mervana, senior director of marketing for Cisco's service provider business, said he can foresee a day in the next 30 years when progressive cities like San Jose, Calif., home of Cisco, develop smart highways. Perhaps there will even be traffic utilities, similar to power utilities, that evolve from wireless service providers to build and operate traffic networks.

"The entire basic infrastructure [for smart highways] is evolving," Mervana said. "It will take lots of server racks and power to do all you need for smart highways and smart cities. It's not just about network connectivity, but also how you manage the data."

Governments will surely be involved, Mervana added. "Definitely there's a regulator role. The technology pieces are there now and it's more about the rate of adoption. Some cities, like San Jose, will lead. Sometimes it's not the technology that matters the most. Just think about what's involved with the mass adoption of smart highways. It's not just having the technology piece in place," he said.

Mervana, who was trained as an electrical engineer, said wireless carriers are already planning how they can make their networks resilient enough to support billions of real-time wireless interactions with vehicles and sensors along roadways. At AT&T, GM's infotainment in-car systems will operate at 4G LTE and then drop back to 3G and even 2G for backup, a model for future smart highway redundancy.

AT&T has also devised technology for in-car entertainment to be billed separately from the cost of wireless network services, although both can be presented on a single bill. GM's existing OnStar wireless service is being used behind the infotainment offerings coming later in 2014 in GM cars. The wireless network link used in making each request for an app or Internet service will be charged to the driver, but GM will pay for the cellular service to send the app or other data to the car.

Cellular billing for infotainment in cars is one thing, but nobody seems to be talking publicly about the manner in which consumers will be charged for municipal traffic wireless services to keep their cars driving safely on the smart highways of the future.

There may be a U.S. Federal Communications Commission fee on everybody's wireless bills to reimburse local governments for putting in network-connected stoplights and other equipment. Congress will surely want a say in that matter.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

mhamblen@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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