Connected vehicles take modern spin on an old classic

How do we transition the millions of vehicles on the world’s road to a connected and - one day - automated future? Andy Graham of White Willow Consulting highlights an intriguing pilot which sought to make some of the UK’s oldest vehicles connected – using just a phone
Classification & Data Collection / February 13, 2024
Connected vehicles old classic technology innovation Daimler © Darren Capes
With a new twist, a 1900 Daimler can be a connected vehicle (© Darren Capes)

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just go straight from today to the safer, cleaner future that the automated vehicles developers have been promising us for some time? Let’s start again, with just new automated vehicles! Sadly, that just is not going to happen. Instead, we need to plan for a gradual change over many years, with automated and existing human driven vehicles sharing the roads. The first reason for this is the sheer volume of vehicles on our roads - 40,723,974 in the UK alone.

And the second reason is that vehicles are getting older – the UK’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) says that, in 2023, the average car and van are both now 9.0 years old, while the average truck has 8.2 years of service and the average bus 13.1 years. These have risen due to Covid but also because not all people can afford newer cars: SMMT forecast sales of 1.8 million cars this year, but there are already 33 million of them in place. 

So without a major scrappage scheme - and even if all new vehicles were automated tomorrow - the transition time to get even half of vehicles automated would still be measured in decades. I have already seen this in my work for VESOS solutions on eCall – where a system mandated in all newly-approved cars and vans in 2018 has now reached 30-35% of those on the road. 

This trend is likely to continue, for example with Londoners buying older petrol cars to replace newer diesels that are not compliant with the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ).  Later, synthetic carbon neutral fuels could allow us to prolong the life of internal combustion engines where these remain the best powerplant either in terms of practicality (like agriculture) or whole-life environmental impact. 

Stone-cold classic

And last but not least, there is also the classic and historic fleet of vehicles - about 496,000 of them in the UK (of which I have one). These travel few miles and are well maintained, some might say “over-cherished”. Telling many drivers and owners they can no longer use their pride and joy car or motorbike as they can’t work in with an automated future would be a hard political ask in middle England. These older vehicles actually have a low impact on the environment compared to a replacement new one (they don’t do many miles as, let’s be honest, they break down more often and some are uncomfortable for long journeys - I speak from experience of a 1980s TVR en route to Le Mans). But they bring immense pleasure, not just to their owners but to spectators too, at events ranging from the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run – more of that later - to the Festival of the Unexceptional, a celebration of long-forgotten mundane everyday family cars from 1968-1998. Both make people happy.

Vintage cars outside London's RAC Club (© Andy Graham)

And far from a few old blokes like me in sheds tinkering with spanners, the classic car industry, according to the Historic Classic Vehicle Alliance, had an £18.3billion turnover in 2019. Within that are £1.57billion in classic car sales and £1.08billion in insurance alone.

So, new autonomous vehicles will need to know about the presence and characteristics of a wide variety of old vehicles they come across, just like they need to know the rules of the road, roadworks, traffic signals phase, the location of fire engines (recently highlighted in the US), and cyclists and pedestrians, among many other things. Connected vehicles can provide this data now – as vehicles don’t all need to be automated.


“We need to plan for a gradual change over many years, with automated and existing human driven vehicles sharing the roads”

There’s a great example of transition from aviation. My father used to fly in the RAF in a fabulous plane called a Catalina, way out over the Atlantic. One of them still flies in the UK, and I flew in it a few years ago. It is made of 1940s aluminium, wires, leather and some original paint, but has a 21st century avionics screen instead of the map and sextant Dad used. This broadcasts the identity of the plane (G-PBYA), its speed and location to other aircraft, to air traffic control, and hence to the internet at in pretty much real time. Have a look next time you are on a boring Teams call – there are also Spitfires aplenty on Flightradar24, using the same sort of equipment, flying in and out of congested London airspace. 

“I am here”

So, if we can keep an 80-year-old aeroplane in the air in a congested, hi-tech environment with complex automated systems, can we do the same for older vehicles? The answer is yes, if they broadcast a Co-operative Awareness Message (or CAM) from a suitable device. This is the digital data equivalent of a flashing yellow beacon, also saying: “I am here, I am this big (or small), I am moving in this way,” so automated vehicles can take account of them. And it is done several times a second (at least twice for slow vehicles). These messages need to travel between vehicles and to the roadside with minimal time lag (since there is no point knowing where the vehicle was a minute ago…) There are similar Vulnerable Road User Awareness Messages for cycles (VAM).

So the question is: how do we persuade drivers of older vehicles to fit the kit to send out CAM messages (or VAMs on old bikes), and what technology do they need to do so? CAM messages have been traditionally seen as coming from on-board units fitted to new cars on the assembly line, to broadcast the data directly to other vehicles. But for older vehicles, how do we get them in place?

There are two approaches – one is to make a dedicated retrofittable ‘box’ like in the Catalina, and make it a requirement for older vehicles to have one. But this might prove expensive.

On the road and underway (© Darren Capes)

A second way is to exploit the mobile phone which almost every driver of an old vehicle already has on board or hidden inside a warm jacket. There is a technology challenge in the speed of communications being able to do that fast enough, but clever minds are working on it.

The RAC Foundation has started this already, beginning on the Connected RM Sotheby’s London to Brighton Veteran Car Run of 2021. This was a ‘pathfinder’, looking at how practical it was to use standard mobile phones with dedicated apps that provided several services to drivers: notably in vehicle signing and giving a fixed navigation route that matched the official route, turn by turn. 

It also offered tracking, so mechanics could find a broken-down vehicle and fix it (generally with a hammer) and other services all in one integrated app. Even though we didn’t use CAM messages for the pathfinder, it worked well enough on 4G cellular networks in busy Brighton to show that the concept was feasible – that you could fit a mobile phone to a 123-year-old car without too much a) fuss and b) visual intrusion. We did find that battery life was a challenge on one particular phone maker ( there is no 12v socket on a veteran car – in fact very little is electricity at all) but that will improve over time. 

I would like to see our initial RAC run work expanded to develop the safety-critical devices we will need for a mixed automated and human-driven fleet, either as dedicated devices or apps if the communications work quickly enough. This could be a great opportunity for UK innovators. 

But this area is not simply not sexy enough to attract funds compared to driverless cars – as the UK government continues to invest in autonomy, with £18.5m announced in September. Connected, human-driven vehicles (especially ones that aren’t new) remain the Cinderella. But they will be around for many years to come, will be politically important and offer immediate benefits to human drivers and other road users. 


Andy Graham is principal of White Willow Consulting and bridges the gap between roads and automotive technology