Qualcomm draws a road map to the self-driving car of the future

Ultra-high definition video. GPS that’s even more precise than GPS. Massively multiplayer online gaming. 5G connectivity. All the buzzwords that define modern technology? Qualcomm has a single chip for it — designed for your car.

On Tuesday, Qualcomm unveiled its second-generation Connected Car Reference Platform and the QCA6696 chip, which brings next-gen Wi-Fi 6 connectivity to automobiles and enables an enormous array of technologies that promise to bridge the gap between the ordinary cars of today and the self-driving entertainment centers of the future. And at the center of all of those technologies is the new Wi-Fi 6 standard and — you guessed it — 5G cellular connectivity.

“We believe our new Snapdragon Automotive Platforms will help launch the connected vehicle into the 5G era, offering multi-Gigabit low latency speeds, lane-level navigation accuracy, and an integrated and comprehensive C-V2X solution for increased road safety for cars and transportation infrastructure,” said Nakul Duggal, senior vice president of product management for Qualcomm. “With these new wireless solutions, we are excited to support our automaker, Tier-1 and roadside infrastructure customers as they develop faster, safer, and differentiated products for the next-generation of the connected car.”

Sure, Wi-Fi 6 promises faster throughputs, better battery life, and lower latencies. And 5G makes similar promises. But it’s the features beyond the mere network speed that may really enhance tomorrow’s cars. For one thing, there’s the “lane-level navigation” Duggal mentions. You see, Qualcomm has spent years working on a more precise form of positioning than GPS. Modern GPS is generally accurate to within a few feet, which is fine when you’re studying a map and need to know that a turn is coming up, but hardly good enough to keep a vehicle in the correct lane on the highway.

To improve it, Qualcomm leaned on its existing patent portfolio; it merges data from existing GNSS satellites (including GPS, Europe’s Galileo, Russia’s GLONASS, and more) with something called VEPP, or vision enhanced precise positioning. In essence, Qualcomm is using imagery from existing video cameras to pinpoint a car’s precise location. Self-driving cars will also need to communicate with each other — and with stop signs, traffic lights, and all sorts of traffic infrastructure. Qualcomm argues that CV2X (cellular vehicle-to-everything) communication will fill that need. And it’s baked into the Reference Platform, of course.

“The cost to go do this is not astronomical,” Duggal told Digital Trends. “You basically need a standard camera like you have today… everything else is something you are already enabling the telematics unit for.”

Then there’s all of that multimedia goodness. Imagine screens embedded in the back seats, passengers playing massive online games that they connect to through the car, multimedia through the dashboard for the front seat passengers, and more. Support for 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz Wi-Fi bands make it possible, and because Qualcomm builds in two SIMs — one for the car, one for the driver — the chip can simultaneously stream your favorite Jason Isbell songs while your car dodges and weaves through traffic.

There’s more of course. Imagine using your cell phone as a key fob to unlock your car, rather than … well, a key fob. Imagine a heart-rate monitor on your wrist that keeps tabs on your vitals and shares them with your sedan, to ensure that you’re alert and awake. Imagine all of that showing up in your next car. The future is always right around the corner … but it turns out, it might be closer even than you think.

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