The next generation of wireless data communications is called 5G because it succeeds older protocols. Most of the current discussion about 5G concerns your phone and other mobile devices. Because 5G can bring up to 20 Gbps data speeds to your devices, it enables a better experience. What might get lost in the noise is that 5G is also going to enable automakers, governments, and the aftermarket to put smarter, more connected vehicles on the road through Cellular Vehicle-to-Anything (C-V2X) communications.
“We announced our 9150 C-V2X chipset in September 2017,” said Maged Zaki, director of technical marketing at Qualcomm. “Since then, we have done about 20 trials globally, in the US, Europe, China, Korea, and Japan. I worked with most of the automakers on the trials, and Ford just announced that it will release 5G C-V2X in cars starting in 2022. That’s a big win for us. Also, we think we’ll get huge traction in China because China is building new infrastructure that will use the technology.”
What’s so different about 5G?
“Alexa is a cloud-based service, so while certain features will be available even in areas with weak or no connectivity, customers need a reliable data connection to enjoy the full Alexa experience in the car,” explained Arianne Walker, chief evangelist for Alexa Auto at Amazon. “5G will not only deliver that more reliable connectivity, but also additional bandwidth and lower latency. Together, they’ll allow automakers, suppliers, and device makers to provide a faster, more complete Alexa experience behind the wheel, and to develop entirely new features that leverage voice alongside emerging automotive tech like autonomous vehicles and electrification.”
When it comes to automotive applications, there’s another key feature: 5G doesn’t necessarily have to rely solely on the cellular network. That means that C-V2X communications can happen using 5G protocols in the absence of a connection to the general wireless data infrastructure.
“Think of it as two tracks that are interconnected,” Zaki said. “One track is around mobile broadband and getting more information into the car and out of the car. That would be used for things related to the digital cockpit, entertainment, all the experiences that would require a more reliable and higher speed connection from the car to the cloud. The other track is the direct communication through C-V2X and its evolution to 5G. That’s where the story comes to things that are related to driving in general; things that would benefit from direct communication, such as car-to-car and car-to-infrastructure.”
Why V2X matters even if you’re still driving
Cellular and other V2X communications, such as Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC), are critical for autonomous driving, but they can also improve your driving experience while you’re still behind the wheel. For example, systems have been tested in which vehicles are allowed access to traffic light signal information in test cities such as Las Vegas, Nevada and Portland, Oregon.
These systems give the driver the status of the next upcoming traffic light, and an estimate of when that light is scheduled to change. Using that information, a driver can adjust his or her car’s speed to minimize red light stops, improving efficiency not only for that car, but also the general flow of traffic.
The first reason you care about 5G is that it’s faster than 4G. It’s also capable of lower latency, which is the time you wait for the system to respond.
“You have new use cases around augmented reality navigation that would require lots of information from the cloud, but also more precise positioning in the car,” according to Zaki. “All these things are how we are transforming the inside of the car. And then on the same link, which is the connection to the cloud, you can also get relevant information from the car such as some of the sensor detail or telematics information.”
With information coming from sensor and camera systems on many cars, a detailed moving picture emerges of the traffic situation in a given area. That picture can change from moment to moment, informing decisions about how long to engage a traffic light or when to open an HOV lane. More precise GPS location information can also be used to implement augmented reality navigation assistance, such as displaying street names overlaid on a camera image of the road ahead. Mercedes-Benz is already offering this feature as part of its advanced MBUX infotainment system.
Remember that one of the main benefits of 5G C-V2X technology is that it does not depend on traditional cellular coverage. Instead of a connection to the cloud, this technology can also communicate directly with nearby vehicles or to nearby infrastructure.
“One of the things we modified in the LTE direct communications technology is to make it work independent of any network coverage,” Maki told Digital Trends. “People always ask, ‘do we have to wait for 5G to be deployed everywhere to get this technology?’ And the answer is that it will allow communication between cars and the infrastructure even if you are out of coverage.
“There is a very simple reason for this because, assuming I’m driving up to Yosemite, where I know some of the areas don’t have cellular coverage today, the driver assistance technology should still work. Having an accident because the assistant didn’t work is not an option, so that’s why the protocol is designed in a way that it’s completely between cars and each other or cars and traffic lights, for example.”
Will 5G be a breakthrough for autonomous cars?
Obviously, assisted driving is a step on the road to autonomous vehicles, and 5G communications are set to play a role there, too. Among the many companies working on autonomous vehicles is Nvidia, and it offered this prepared statement:
“An autonomous vehicle needs to be exactly that: autonomous. Specifically, it cannot be reliant on anything external through connectivity, either to other vehicles, infrastructure, or the cloud/internet. Driving decisions must happen within a fraction of a second, requiring all sensor processing to happen in-vehicle. However, other data sources may augment [a vehicle’s] awareness (e.g., object data for nearby vehicles, status data from traffic lights, crowd-sourcing traffic data). Data coming from other sources act as new sensor modalities, and can enhance the safety of the vehicle.”
Maki mapped out how this 5G C-V2X communication will work in a practical way.
“Autonomous cars are supposed to be much safer than me driving my car,” he said. “To reach this level of safety, autonomous cars will have to be very cautious in making any decision. The example I would mention here is when I’m making a left turn and I’m seeing cars coming in the other direction. I can make a judgment call and know when to go even if there are cars coming if they’re far enough away. An autonomous car will not do that, so if there are lots of cars coming it might wait for a very long time.
“That’s why we are adapting this technology; it’s not only to share sensor data, but also to share the intent of my car and other cars on the road for more coordinated driving. That means much more efficient maneuvers or faster maneuvers for autonomous cars. So, for me as a user, I arrive home earlier because of faster travel. The overall system will be more efficient because cars will make safe but also efficient maneuvers at every single intersection.”
You’ll start seeing 5G in 2019
The most important thing to know is that 5G is not a decade or even a few years away. The first release is scheduled to begin working in April 2019, with rapid deployment thereafter.
“Typically, cars will go to 5G maybe a year after the smartphone,” Maki opined. “Today we have commercial products for 5G that we give to automakers and also to tier-one suppliers. Ford committed to the date 2022, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen faster. We expect the technology to be in cars this year, but that’s just our expectation. Actually, we expected to happen earlier in a market like China, because they are more aggressive and committed to the technology.”
If Maki’s predictions hold true, the market will start to see some 5G capabilities in 2020 model-year vehicles, with additional features coming online as 5G builds out over the next three to five years in the mobile communications and V2X industries.
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