How do we connect unconnected vehicles?

If the future is vehicles that connect to each other and the infrastructure around them, what happens to older models? Andy Graham discusses how he’s already connecting cars and what the benefits are.

Insurance companies, breakdown clubs and fleet managers already use dongles to monitor UK drivers and vehicle health. Picture taken by Martin Sanchez
Insurance companies, breakdown clubs and fleet managers already use dongles to monitor UK drivers and vehicle health. Picture taken by Martin Sanchez
  • Updated: 06 April 2017
  • Author: Andy Graham, Director of White Willow Consulting and Founding Chair of ITS (UK) group on connected vehicles

We hear a lot about how future vehicles will connect to each other and to infrastructure. I’ve been assessing the benefits to congestion and safety that data from human driven vehicles could bring – long before self driving vehicles achieve wide use.

But there are some key questions:

  • how do we make it all happen?
  • who pays for the data?
  • how do they pay?

I’ve been experimenting with vehicle data to measure road condition and to automate parking payment.

As an example of real benefits, I am working with City of York Council using vehicle data to improve traffic signals - to reduce congestion and emissions, and give reliable park and ride journeys.

There are cash savings for authorities in reducing roadside infrastructure if we can move to using data from connected vehicles.

What happens to older vehicles?

But there is a big challenge. There are 38 million vehicles in the UK with around 2 million new ones every year. The average age of a UK vehicle is 7.8 years (2015). So it will take years to churn through, even allowing for newer vehicles doing more miles and many older vehicles that travel very little. My neighbour’s 102-year-old Ford Model T for example.

As new vehicles with connectivity are introduced what happens to the older ones?

Councils cannot introduce policies that just favour new vehicles nor reconfigure how they do business and manage traffic for a few users. They need to help all road users.

For cars built after 1996 there is a solution to help us transition. There is a socket under the dashboard called the ‘on-board diagnostic 2 port’ (go and have a look – it will be there).

We can plug a dongle into this to get the vehicle’s data and measure its location using GPS. Adding an accelerometer makes the dongle an accident recorder (and allows me to measure potholes too). Adding a SIM card turns any suitable vehicle into a connected car.

Insurance companies, breakdown clubs and fleet managers already use dongles to monitor UK drivers and vehicle health. In Westminster drivers use them for automated parking payment.

We can potentially use them for virtual MOT testing, emissions monitoring … anything that needs data from a vehicle.

Data from dongles more than covers the cost

The investment in these cheap devices is by the vehicle owner for insurance, vehicle monitoring and other services that will more than recover their cost. The data is provided ‘as a service’ by companies providing dongles to customers like towns and cities – a business model already in place for congestion information which can be extended to other data streams.

With more technology development older vehicles can even broadcast “I am here” messages, just like new vehicles. This will help network managers with new asset and vehicle data to reduce costs of maintaining existing roads and planning future ones. This will be a key enabler for towns and cities to adopt connected vehicles.

But what about the Model T that doesn’t have an OBD2 port (or even electrical system!)? Many of the functions of the dongle for road safety and location can just come from a smartphone app. Smartphones churn through every two years, much faster than cars. But you must remember to take your phone with you and have it charged.

Helping older slower vehicles like tractors on rural roads identify themselves boost safety benefits. Horses, cyclists and walkers might want to do the same with their smartphones.

This means that connected vehicles aren’t just newly purchased cars but potentially any road user. This concept makes it easier to deploy road and vehicle systems fairly for everyone.

So don’t scrap your Model T (or even Austin Allegro) just yet.