MWC Barcelona 2019: On the Road to Self-Driving Cars, 5G Will Make Us Better Drivers

I’m not sure I can describe the apprehension you feel when you sit down to drive a semi-truck for the first time in your life—and that semi-truck is roughly 2,500 kilometers away.

In a demonstration at MWC Barcelona 2019 (formerly called Mobile World Congress), I overcame my anxiety and successfully drove a truck through a modest obstacle course in a parking lot in Götenberg, Sweden, while I sat surrounded by monitors in a conference hall in southern Spain.

Thankfully, Einride, the company behind the truck I was driving, took precautions to make sure I didn’t set a new world record for “Instigating a Traffic Accident from the Greatest Distance Away.” Those precautions included limiting the top speed of the truck, called a T-pod, to five kilometers per hour regardless of how hard I stepped on the gas, and having an Einride employee on site in Götenberg with a kill switch at the ready.

With a 4G network, driving a truck from half a continent away would be tricky, to say the least. There would be too much latency in the network, forcing you to proceed in fits and starts as you wait for the latest information to arrive each time you step on the gas or turn the wheel.

But now 5G is here. With the 5G network Ericsson provided for Einride’s demonstration, the majority of the (barely perceptible) delay came from the time it took for signals to physically travel from Barcelona to Götenberg, and vice versa.

Providers are deploying 5G networks across the globe, and promising more data throughput, lower latency, and higher reliability than ever before. With that in mind, I spent my time at MWC Barcelona 2019 looking at how companies think 5G will impact different industries.

We’ve heard promises of self-driving cars for years now, and despite having a lot of potential opportunities to connect to and possibly even run on 5G networks, we’ll need to wait several more years, at least, to see the full picture of how these two technologies converge. In the immediate future, we can expect 5G’s impact on the automotive industry to bolster a human driver’s abilities through developments in vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-environment communications.

Of course, engineers began working on autonomous vehicles long before 5G. There are plenty of self-driving technologies that don’t require a vehicle to communicate with its environment. Instead, a vehicle can process all of its data onboard. But according to Erik Josefsson, the head of advanced industries at Ericsson, which sponsored the semi-truck demonstration, this approach doesn’t really make sense in the long run. “Why should you have all this computing power on the actual device? It makes it heavier, it makes it more expensive. So the wish is, maybe we dumb down this one and put more in the cloud.”

5G can offer high data throughput and low latency to move at least some real-time data processing out of the vehicle itself, just like Josefsson argues. The natural progression, argues Josefsson and Alexander Lautz, Deutsche Telekom’s senior vice president for 5G, goes something like this: First, vehicles will communicate with their surroundings over 5G and begin to receive immediate updates from nearby sensors and other IoT devices. Next, vehicles will start supplying data to their surroundings, as well as to other vehicles.

Both steps will bring new ways to improve the human driver’s skills. And eventually, the entire network of vehicles, infrastructure, and sensors could become robust enough to move humans to the passenger seat.

When all is said and done, the connected car might be 5G’s grandest legacy. “What will be the device that, 10 years from now, we’ll look back at as the device of the 5G era?” asks Lautz. “Many think it will be the car. Because the car needs so many elements from the new technologies.”

Imagine you’re driving toward a red traffic light. Naturally, you’d brake. But what if your car could communicate with the traffic light itself? Cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X) is the concept of connecting a car to other smart devices over cellular networks, as opposed to through other wireless technologies such as dedicated short range communications. If the traffic light could tell you how much time you had before it switched to green, your vehicle could calculate how fast you should go. Rather than braking completely, you might be able drop your speed to 20 kilometers per hour and cruise through intersection as the light turns green.

Of course, you could still be in trouble if a driver decides to try to speed through their red light. That’s where vehicle-to-vehicle communications comes in. If the vehicles are also communicating with each other, your car can warn you—perhaps as an alarm or on a head’s up display—of unexpected cross traffic. At Qualcomm’s booth, this scenario was demonstrated in videos of four C-V2X-equipped vehicles negotiating a four-way stop sign.

As I’ve found, the IoT could benefit immensely from large 5G networks with low latency and reliable communications. In fact, as cars become connected, you could think of them as more devices—albeit large ones—in the wider IoT. With enough processing in the cloud, and extremely low-latency signals to and from the vehicle, they could become fully autonomous.

But as Einride and their T-pods demonstrate, even an autonomous vehicle might still need a human operator. The T-pods are capable of autonomous driving in many situations, such as driving down a highway. But remote human operators can also step in to help the truck navigate thornier situations, like unexpected roadwork. In fact, even the best self-driving vehicles may always need humans in the picture.

Like other applications I’ve looked into this week, it will still take some time before we see the first stages of this autonomous future. Like the rest of the nebulous IoT, as well as augmented and virtual reality, many technical specifications that will impact automobiles are not yet fully laid out. That won’t happen until telecom industry association 3GPP publishes Release 16 later this year, which will tackle all the tricky, non-traditional—read, “non-cell phone”—devices that will connect to 5G networks.

Even so, it’s hard not to feel like we’ve turned a corner when it comes to autonomous vehicles. And it’s quite possible that, as vehicles gain more and more autonomy, it will fundamentally change how we use our roads.

At one point in our conversation, Deutsche Telekom’s Lautz suggested that as cars become autonomous, we’ll no longer plot our commutes based on the shortest time or most direct route. Instead, we’ll find routes with the best cellular coverage.

Maybe that won’t be the case, but it’s hard to deny that, while C-V2X automobiles are still quite far away, they’re speeding toward us, fast. Much faster than I drove that T-pod from half a continent away, at least.

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