Harman wants to harness 5G to make streets safer for pedestrians

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Several companies want to incorporate 5G communications technology into cars — but it took Harman to explain why that would actually be a good thing at CES 2020. The Samsung-owned company believes 5G could become the backbone for more advanced driver-assist systems that would let cars “talk” to nearby pedestrians and vehicles in order to avoid collisions.

Harman’s concept is another manifestation of C-V2X (cellular vehicle-to-everything) tech. It allows vehicles to communicate with each other, as well as anything else with the proper equipment, using a common medium — in this case, 5G. Harman claims this will allow vehicles to scan ahead for potential obstacles. Pedestrians and cyclists could also receive warnings on their phones or other devices, in case they don’t hear or see the oncoming car, according to Harman.

Current driver-assist systems usually rely on cameras and radar to detect pedestrians and cyclists. Harman claims C-V2X will work where cameras can’t see obstacles, such as around corners or parked cars. Harman did not discuss any specific applications of this tech with automakers, but there is certainly room for improvement over current systems. A 2019 AAA test found that current pedestrian-detection systems don’t work reliably at night — when most pedestrian fatalities occur.

Harman supplies electronics to several automakers, but the company would not discuss a timeline for when C-V2X pedestrian detection would appear in production cars. Several other companies are dabbling in similar tech.

At CES 2019, Ford said it would equip every car and truck sold in the United States for C-V2X by 2022. It added that interoperability with hardware from other manufacturers will be one of the biggest hurdles to widespread use. At this year’s show, Qualcomm discussed C-V2X as a component of its new self-driving car platform, while BMW announced plans to make future cars 5G compatible. Audi currently offers a feature that allows cars to communicate with traffic lights — without using 5G. This lets the driver know when the light is going to change, but the feature is only available in certain cities, and we found performance to be inconsistent.

Implementing C-V2X on a large scale could prove challenging. Just getting sufficient nationwide 5G coverage has become a drawn-out process, and that’s before anyone starts adding C-V2X equipment to cars, or asking people to download compatible apps to their phones. The average car on U.S. roads is over 10 years old, so even if automakers make all of their cars compatible with C-V2X, it will take some time to build up a sufficiently large fleet of vehicles.

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