With 2,300 exhibitors and over 108,000 visitors this year, the World Mobile Congress is the largest annual tradeshow for wireless communication. It tends to be the place where the industry’s most exciting new products and innovations are unveiled. This year, however, a strange spirit of nostalgia seemed to be in the air. Nokia unveiled a line of smartphones based on its iconic early 2000s brick, the 3310, and the Chinese company that licenses BlackBerry’s name showed off a smartphone with a retro keyboard. Conspicuously absent were new phones from Samsung and Apple.
Some longtime observers said the show didn’t quite measure up to previous ones. “As exciting as parts of it were, MWC was not as exciting as a whole as it has been in the past,” said Jeff Kagan, an independent telecom analyst who followed the show remotely from Atlanta.
Ironically, the most exciting demonstrations weren’t of phones or tablets at all. In recent years, more and more automotive companies and auto suppliers have attended the show. This year, non-handheld devices, particularly in transportation and shipping, stole the show, as automotive, delivery, and telecommunications companies made it clear that autonomous and remote-controlled transportation is not very far away. As Börje Ekholm, CEO of Ericsson, joked, IoT should now stand for Internet of Trucks.
A number of autonomous transportation experiments were showcased in the event, which was held March 2-5 in Barcelona:
* DHL Parcelcopter: Now under development in alpine Bavaria, Germany, the autonomous carbon fiber tilt-wing drone is capable of carrying 2 kg at up to 70 km per hour. It is integrated with a domed charging station, the Skyport, which opens and closes automatically, James Bond-style, whenever the Parcelcopter needs to takeoff or land.
* Roborace: Just four and a half years since the Formula E electric car races debuted, the organizers are back with a new concept: Roborace, a race between high-speed autonomous electric cars. The developers have built 10 autonomous electric cars capable of a top speed of 320 km per hour. The idea behind Roborace is twofold, first to build enthusiasm for the possibilities of autonomous driving, and second, to test the driving software under pressure.
To add excitement, organizers wanted a very sleek car. “This needs to be gorgeous,” designer Daniel Simon recalled thinking. “The superhero of self-driving cars.” Simon, whose credits include vehicles in Captain America, Tron, and Star Wars, delivered a very sleek, almost missile-shaped vehicle, partly because there’s no cabin for a thrill-seeking human.
So where’s the suspense in watching what are essentially smart eggbeaters roar around the track? Denis Sverdlov, the leader of Roborace, says it will be in the competition between the software crews behind each car. “It’s a competition of intelligence,” he said.
* Otto: Also at MWC was Anthony Levandowski, CEO of Otto, a one-year-old Silicon Valley company focused on designing autonomous driving systems for cars and trucks. The company was acquired by Uber for $600 million last August. Already, said Levandowski, Otto’s autonomous trucks have hauled 50,000 cans of beer from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, Colo., using only Otto’s software. Otto is also experimenting with self-driving Uber taxis in Pittsburgh and Phoenix, as well as undertaking joint projects with Volvo and Daimler in Europe.
While most media attention has focused on the unemployment that self-driving trucks might create, Levandowski emphasized instead the safety they would bring to the highways. He argued that even just deploying self-driving trucks could lead to a huge cut in traffic deaths. Trucks represent 1% of the vehicles on the road but 5% of the traffic and 90% of the fatalities, according to Levandowski.
* Ericcson’s remote-control driving booth: Not every exhibit involved artificial intelligence. In a demonstration set up somewhat like an oversized video arcade game, drivers sat behind a wheel watching a track via giant high-definition video screens that connected directly to a car on a Tarragona, Spain, race track 80 km away.
Beyond being cool, what’s the connection with wireless communication? The biggest is that many of these new applications are being designed with the expectation that 5G bandwidth will be available soon. Forecast for rollout in 2020, this fifth-generation wireless telecommunications standard will make it possible to download at least 50 megabytes of data per second anywhere with high reliability and low latency. “I think that’s one of the key enabling technologies,” said Uber’s Levandowski.
The latency is a key factor. Ericcson’s remote-control driving station, for instance, connected a vehicle with a steering wheel, a high-definition video display, and even a seat that conveyed the movements of the real car, all in just a few hundredths of a second.
Ericsson’s CEO also sees 5G as transformative. “This is the key foundation to enable the automation and business transformation needed for the Internet of Things, as well as data-hungry services like Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality,” Ericsson’s Ekholm told an audience of analysts and executives.
So far, so bright. However, cybersecurity expert Eugene Kaspersky, CEO of Kaspersky Lab, a global cybersecurity and anti-virus provider headquartered in Moscow, sounded one of the conference’s few cautionary notes, warning in a keynote address that today’s Internet of Things systems are based on software designs developed 40-50 years ago, and many are vulnerable. Windows machines suffer 448 million attacks a year, he said. Android adds another 22 million. There are many fewer for Mac (40,000), Linux (30,000), and iOS (600), but attacks on all three are growing more than 70% a year. Mac’s low number, for example, is more a consequence of the shortage of Mac engineers than the security of the system, Kaspersky explained.
The consequences of such vulnerability can be deadly. Already, a cargo plane has crashed, cars have been hacked, and massive electrical blackouts have been triggered by hackers, according to Kaspersky. “Unfortunately, if we don’t change that in the future, we will face very bad scenarios,” he said.