When cars can share data, maybe they’ll act in unison and drive themselves safely enough for us humans to sit back and daydream. But the car-to-car chat would have to occur at data transfer speeds a lot faster than those our pokey 4G cellular service can muster.
Today, the necessary 5G cellular technology was demonstrated for the first time at a BMW race track near Inchon, in South Korea. Two BMWs shared information with the human drivers; in a future, self-driving setup, such sharing of data might allow cars to coordinate actions almost instantaneously.
The purpose-built 5G network covered 240,000 square meters (59 acres, or about half the size of Vatican City) according to SK Telecom, the South Korean company that installed it along with Sweden’s Ericsson. The back-and-forth communication had less than a millisecond of latency, par for the course for a system with a peak transmission rate of 20 gigabits per second.
Each car had a 5G station of its own, through which on-board cameras could upload ultrahigh-definition video for displaying to an audience. The cars were from the X5 and the S7 series (the first production vehicle to park itself driverlessly, as IEEE Spectrum reportedin April).
The coming of 5G is keeping the idea of cellular car-to-car connections alive. It may even end up driving a stake through the heart of alternative wireless schemes—notably dedicated short range communications, or DSRC, based on IEEE 802.11p. That’s the system upon which Europe’s Cooperative ITS Corridor, from Amsterdam to Vienna, is now being built.
A 5G connection will someday enable self-driving cars to brake in unison. If my car’s AI sees an obstacle as it rounds a bend, it could hit the brakes on both my car and your car, following just behind me. Of course, vehicle-to-vehicle talk won’t be enough: We’ll also need sensor-festooned cars capable of knitting together various kinds of data to make split-second decisions as good as a human driver’s.
That vision is still a ways off. No doubt we’ll first see 5G service in the hands of teenagers, who will use it to send and receive high-def video.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.