The Internet of Things on Wheels

By Kevin Ashton

RFID and sensor networks will enable the connected vehicle and passenger.

RFID has had a long, fruitful relationship with the automotive industry. One of the earliest applications was launched 25 years ago, when buses crossing Australia's Sydney Harbour Bridge automatically identified themselves to toll booths. Throughout the 1990s, toll-road automation drove much of the infant RFID industry's growth. Today, systems that once required drivers to slow to 5 miles per hour can read the RFID tags on windshields of cars going at any speed—in fact, the readers' true upper limits are beyond the capabilities of most vehicles.

But toll-road automation was just the beginning for RFID in cars. Many vehicles produced today are "keyless"—instead of inserting a specially shaped metal prong into a slot on the steering column, the car will start at the push of a button, provided the right key fob is nearby.

Other wireless technologies are at work in a car's cabin. Sensors, for example, determine whether it is safe to deploy a passenger-side air bag by detecting distribution of volume and mass in three dimensions, to distinguish between adults and children. Air and fuel sensors monitor engine efficiency, hall effect sensors measure wheel and shaft speed to prevent skids, and curb feelers and parking sensors help with reversing and parallel parking.

A modern car is a sensor platform on wheels, but few of the sensors communicate with each other, and fewer still communicate beyond the vehicle. The next step is for them to converge into a single, coordinated system, first as part of a connected vehicle, then as part of a connected city, providing a range of services from navigation assistance and maintenance management to entertainment and interpersonal communication.

Of course, the next big thing for vehicles with connected sensor systems is driverless automobiles. The technology is here now; it will be commercially available within the next 10 years, and will be widely used within the next 20 years. And that will enable the next big thing—a rich intersection between cars and the Internet of Things. Once the car is doing the driving, passengers will be free to form "carmunities," in which they integrate their travel experiences with their existing social networks.

In the not-so-distant future, researchers predict the connected vehicle market will be worth billions of dollars. Why? One reason is that the first generation of drivers born in the 21st century is about to take the wheel. People who have never known a world without mobile phones and Wi-Fi—without always on, always there communication—do not want to go from A to B if they have to leave cyberspace to get there.

It's a sign of RFID's promising future that two decades in, the technology is still only scratching the surface of the place where it got its start: the automotive industry.

Kevin Ashton was cofounder and executive director of the Auto-ID Center. He is currently a general manager at electronics maker Belkin.