July 5, 2012 at 3:38 PM ET
Within a few years, auto industry experts predict most new cars on the road will be Wi-Fi enabled. A new algorithm developed by graduate students may let them share expensive links to the Internet.
The idea is that Wi-Fi is cheap, but surfing the Web over a cell or satellite network is expensive. If we could pool our data needs via Wi-Fi and use a handful of 3G connections instead of hundreds, we’d save money and bandwidth.
“For example, say we all wanted to watch the Celtics game live. Instead of having everyone download a video, we could be smart about it and have only five us,” Alex Cornejo, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told me Thursday.
“Any by the way, it is not the same five people every time … instead it is evenly distributed, but at any given point in time only five of us are downloading the video,” he added.
(These people watching the game, hopefully, will be passengers, not the driver.)
The challenge Cornejo and his colleagues faced in developing the algorithm was the randomness of traffic patterns, which prevents advanced planning of who to connect to at any point en route, say, to work.
Rather, when two cars are within Wi-Fi range of each other, they essentially flip a coin to see whose data plan will be used to download the video or send an email.
“As time progresses, you start learning that some cars by luck or chance have won a lot of coin flips and some cars have won less coin flips, so you start to bias the coin a little bit to ensure … you will aggregate a lot of data,” he explained.
Since the coin is regularly tossed, owing to the fact that Wi-Fi connections are constantly changing, there’s fairness in whose data plan gets dinged, he added.
In other words, near an airport your car might be chosen as the data pipe to the Internet, but when you get to the shopping mall, someone else’s car will be chosen.
Cornejo and his colleagues aim to try out the system in the real world, perhaps in Singapore where there’s already a dense network of Wi-Fi-equipped taxicabs.
The team will present their findings later this month at the ACM SIGACT-SIGOPS Symposium on Principles of Distributed Computing in Portugal.
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.