Paving the digital road.

The world needs more intelligent battery and network technology.

The domino effect and staying online.

Nothing is simpler than staying online, always and wherever you are. Simply activate your phone wifi and you’re plugged in. But if that electricity is interrupted, you’ll have no internet. And without the internet you have no access to the digital universe. You only need to look around to see how seriously people take their connectivity. Everywhere, people use power banks to ensure they stay online. And this appetite for energy is increasing. More and more data is being bought - and not just for smartphones. Without an internet connection there would be no car sharing or no real-time navigation. To guard against this, mobile phone manufacturers are searching for solutions, especially within the automobile industry.

Digital silk roads.

But a connected car isn’t like Amazon Echo, sitting at home on the table, secured into the power supply and home wifi network. Whether still or moving, a connected car must work consistently, in all weathers and all places. It will be part of the Internet of Things - a car will communicate with other cars, smart homes, calendar apps or indeed anything. This network will be wireless and global. For cars, dead spots in the network would be fatal, as would power outages. And not just for passengers, but for consumer confidence in the market. In an age where data is the new oil, batteries and network technologies are the new spark plugs. Communication standards will be the silk roads that connect the world together.

Better batteries, or better without?

The first cars did not need batteries. It was only when the hand crank was replaced with electric starters that batteries became necessary. Since then, there have been discussions worldwide on the standards that govern electricity in a car. In 1918, 6 volts were enough to start an engine. By now, German car makers prefer a 12 volt solution supported by a second electricity supply, delivering a power of 48 volts. It is these standards which define the size, weight, performance and ultimately the cost of batteries. The batteries of the future will face tall demands. They need to offer more performance while at the same time becoming smaller and lighter. They shouldn’t discharge fully, but provide long battery life and quick charging without overheating. In addition, in Europe there is a legal obligation to return spent batteries, including from cars. This means that manufacturers must consider how to reuse these batteries. For example, BMW plans to store and exploit empty car batteries in a new type of powerplant.

All over the world, people are looking for ways to improve batteries. Graphene-based batteries offer real potential. But how long will humans need batteries as a means of storing energy at all? Researchers at the University of Washington this year created a mobile phone that requires no battery. Instead, it draws its energy from light and radio waves. When would this technology be ripe for a car, and what consequences will this have?

Mobile dead spots - the future’s potholes.

Dead spots happen where devices cannot connect to a transmission station. Typically, electromagnetic disturbances or geographical obstacles are to blame. One way to fill in dead zones is to create more stationary transmission equipment. For example, Facebook wants to convert street lights into communication towers via its Project Terragraph. Another possibility would be to turn cars into roaming masts. The company Alphabet has worked on another solution since 2013. With its Project Loon, balloons in the stratosphere would be activated and linked to create a global communications network.

Endangered species, shark fins and fox tails.

A different approach would be developing more powerful antennas that can traffick more data, while simultaneously reducing energy consumption to almost zero. Like batteries, future signal receivers must become smaller and more powerful. But at the same time, they must operate invisibly in the background. Thanks to new materials, these will also work at extreme proximity and distance. Ceramic RFID housing promises to double the reception range. The development of nanomechanical, electromagnetic antennas will break existing records by increasing the rate of signals sent and received per second. The company Vanu has created a transmitter that only uses 64 watts, instead of the usual 10 kilowatts. Intelligent flat antennas were introduced at the IAA this year. These are equipped with liquid crystal mixtures. Using algorithms, they can be aligned in the direction of a satellite signal. The software behind this is created by firms like Kymeta or ALCAN Systems. These film antennas are only a few millimetres thick, and so can be applied almost invisibly to any surface. They’re also transparent, like this antenna from Hirschmann, and can be integrated into a car window pane without issue. As such, metre-long ‘shark fin’ car roof antennas, or the Opel Manta’s ‘fox tail’ could soon be a thing of the past.

Borderless networks.

Forgotten is the time before electricity came through plug sockets. The time when people still argued whether direct or alternating currents should be used to power houses and factories. Power is still power, so enforcing standards is a matter of commercialisation. This is also true for mobile network standards. Network standards include regulations that mobile communication systems are built around. The current standard is LTE. This allows download speeds of up to 300 megabytes per second. But from 2020, 5G will be the standard that is used across the board, permitting downloads of up to 10,000 megabytes per second. With the 5G Automotive Association, leading car makers and telecommunication firms have joined forces to safeguard communication between connected vehicles and other Internet of Things networks. They want to best fulfil the potential of new mobile network technologies and also integrate diverse car platforms. The association focuses on key technical and regulatory issues. A similar approach is seen in the collaboration between the GENIVI Alliance and the Open Connection Foundation in the US. It’s like plug and socket standards. Instead of having different ways across the world to receive electricity from the mains, a standard should be defined on getting internet safely and reliably in a car. But will these efforts be enough to achieve with communication standards that which will never happen with electricity? The car of the future must always be online, whether in the city or the countryside, your home country or across the border. This flow of information and electricity must never be interrupted, lest we put a leash on digital freedom.

Authors: Christian Geiss and Jean-Paul Olivier