Figure 1: Vehicle autonomy requires situational awareness, delivered in large measure by microwave communications.
The RF and microwave industry faces the same uncertainties and volatility as its more visible counterparts, but when the future has looked uncertain, a new market has serendipitously appeared to save the day. This time, although the industry overall is robust, a huge new market is beginning to emerge in the form of vehicle autonomy that will be much broader in scope than what IoT will bring. Driverless vehicle ubiquity is at least a decade or more away, but in the meantime RF and microwave hardware will be needed in steadily increasing amounts.
Consider that according to a study by Morgan Stanley, one in five cars will be “self-aware” and capable of sharing information on mechanical health and surroundings by 2018, cars connected to the internet will increase six times to more than 150 million by 2020, and ultimately that in order for total autonomous vehicle autonomy to succeed, vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications will be essential.
To understand why this will give the microwave market such a boost, you need to examine it in sectors. The primary revenue generator at the moment is 77-GHz radar used in forward collision avoidance systems, primarily on luxury cars but rapidly finding its way “down market” to lower tiers either as an option or increasingly as a standard feature. They’re currently installed almost exclusively in the front of the vehicle, but to provide situational awareness in other areas, up to six radars per vehicle is the likely requirement – eventually.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg from a microwave point of view. As situational awareness increases in scope from vehicles around each other to the “global” traffic environment as shown in the figure, vehicles will need to communicate with each other (V2V) and also with so-called roadside infrastructure (V2I), which includes cameras and other sensors almost everywhere. Most of this communication will take place at a frequency between 5.85 and 5.925 GHz, reserved for this purpose, and following a standard called IEEE 802.11p. The sheer amount of microwave hardware required to implement this on a national and indeed international basis is difficult to determine now, but it will obviously be huge.
However, it will also rely on the cellular network using LTE Advanced (the successor to LTE), which will likely be available in 2 to 3 years in the U.S., as well as Wi-Fi, which is rapidly becoming a “second cellular” with millions of hotspots already in place. To accommodate the enormous increase in traffic generated by vehicle safety communications, carriers will not only need a lot more bandwidth as channels will soon approach 200 MHz in width, but more frequencies on which to operate, greater spectral efficiency, and much, much more infrastructure in the form of small cells.
So if we add all of this together, the result seems likely to be a market for microwave hardware (as well as sensors, processing, data storage, and software) of extraordinary size. With the “drive to vehicle autonomy” seemingly unstoppable, the future looks mighty bright for this industry.
Barry Manz is president of Manz Communications, Inc., a technical media relations agency he founded in 1987. He has since worked with more than 100 companies in the RF and microwave, defense, test and measurement, semiconductor, embedded systems, lightwave, and other markets. Barry writes articles for print and online trade publications, as well as white papers, application notes, symposium papers, technical references guides, and Web content. He is also a contributing editor for the Journal of Electronic Defense, editor of Military Microwave Digest, co-founder of MilCOTS Digest magazine, and was editor in chief of Microwaves & RF magazine.