Proponents of 5G say it will offer ultra-fast connections, speedier data downloads, and be able to handle millions more connections than 4G mobile networks can cope with today. One use for 5G is self-driving cars, but will they really need it?
The telecoms industry envisions autonomous cars equipped with hundreds of sensors collecting and receiving information all at once over a network.
It calls this concept “Vehicle-to-everything” (V2X).
To achieve this, the car needs to detect blind spots and avoid collisions with people, animals or other vehicles on the road.
As the car drives, its sensors will pick up information about:
- weather and road conditions
- obstacles and objects moving near the car
Once the information is gathered, either an on-board computer will make an instant decision, or the data could be sent into the cloud to be processed, and then a decision would be sent back to the vehicle.
Smarter than humans
Imagine a scenario where Car A is travelling down a highway at 80mph. Suddenly, Car B pulls out in front of Car A.
To avoid an accident, the sensors on both cars would need to talk to each other. As a result, Car A would brake, and Car B would speed up, in order to avoid a collision.
“We need to look at how long it takes for the message to be transmitted between sensors and then get to the computer in each car, and then how long it takes for the computer to make a decision, and all of this has to be in less time than a human would take to make a decision – 2 milliseconds,” Jane Rygaard, of Finnish tech firm Nokia, tells the BBC.
“We need a network supporting this, and 5G is that network.”
UK national mapping agency Ordnance Survey agrees: “When you switch a light on, it turns on immediately. That’s what you need with autonomous cars – if something happens, the car needs to stop immediately. That’s why the high frequency 5G signals are required.”
But it’s not just about the car itself – technology firm Ericsson says that in the event of a major disaster, or severe congestion around a football stadium, authorities could send instant alerts to autonomous cars, warning them to use alternative routes instead.
Ericsson has conducted tests in Stockholm, Sweden with car manufacturer Volvo and truck maker Scania, using a counter-terrorism scenario whereby police were able to disable a hijacked connected truck or prevent it from entering certain geo-fenced locations.
5G or Wi-Fi?
Some people in the industry argue that self-driving cars don’t need 5G.
Since the automobile industry is already making connected cars today that use 4G to access weather and road updates, 5G critics say it can continue to use 4G, together with Wi-Fi protocols.
“Self-driving cars have to be completely safe and reliable without mobile coverage, and if this is possible, then why do they need mobile coverage at all?” says Prof William Webb, a consultant and author of the book The 5G Myth: When vision decoupled from reality.
“I agree car-to-car communications would be sensible and enhance safety, but that communication is available now within Wi-Fi protocols or 4G.
“For car-to-car communications you don’t need a network – the cars connect directly to each other.”
Enrico Salvatori, president of Qualcomm Europe, whose chipsets are already being used by 33 automobile makers worldwide, strongly disagrees with Prof Webb.
“Wi-Fi can address short-range communications, but V2X includes vehicle to the network, to the city, to the cloud, so you need to have a standard that is including all the possible applications end-to-end,” he tells the BBC.
“It needs to be able to connect to any distance, near or far.”
Ford says that it sits somewhere in the middle of these two sides of the argument.
“We were previously proponents of the Wi-Fi protocol because it was the only technology available at the time,” explains Ford’s executive director for connected vehicle platform and product Don Butler.
“We do believe that a mobile approach to vehicle-to-vehicle communications is a better alternative than Wi-Fi.”
Research firm Gartner agrees 5G will have an impact on self-driving cars, but there’s a catch.
“5G will indeed be essential to the development and use of autonomous vehicles, with two important caveats – the network must truly be 5G, and the vehicle must truly be autonomous,” Gartner analyst Will Hahn.
“Neither of these appear to be likely in the near term.”
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