5G Mobile Internet Is (Potentially) About to Revolutionize Transportation

5G will be the key to autonomous cars, mobile augmented reality, and the safest roads ever...assuming it’s as good as everyone says it will be.

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Most of the time, our smartphones are pretty much the only piece of modern technology we need. We can stream YouTube videos on the train, execute lightning-fast Google searches while galloping down the street in the rain, and sling photos to friends and followers like a Vegas poker dealer. Unless you’re trying to download the complete Lord of the Rings trilogy at a rest stop in central South Dakota, you’re probably in a pretty good place, connectively speaking.

But of course, that’s not good enough, is it? No, it’s actually not—but not just because those of us in the worst-offender category are indeed sucking down far more data than other, often without even realizing it. (Blame all those apps maintaining that steady hum of connectivity at all times.) It’s not good enough because everything around us is guzzling data, too. As sensors, smart devices, and connected gadgets proliferate, our collective need for data becomes greater and greater. Now fold cars into the mix—as is happening more and more, thanks to vehicular cell systems feeding navigation and search data to dashboard infotainment systems—you start to see just how many more bits and bytes we’re going to be needing to send and receive.

As you might expect, the mobile-tech industry is keenly aware of this. As a result, we’re now staring down the barrel of the 5G mobile communication revolution. This is, obviously, the next step above the 4G standard for mobile devices currently use to muscle through our digital days, offering up to 20 gigabits per second of connectivity—compared to 4G’s maximum of 50 megabits per second download speeds. It promises orders-of-magnitude improvements in data speed, signal strength, and overall reliability. The most optimistic 5G enthusiasts predict epic gaming capabilities and lightning-fast downloads—think the entire LOTR saga flooding your smartphone in minutes, even at that rest stop in deep South Dakota.

That will be great, but the real power-users won’t be consumers forever glued to our smartphones. It’ll be the commercial and industrial entities seeking to capitalize on ubiquitous connectivity, including—indeed, well at the forefront—the automakers and transportation authorities working to push driving to new levels of safety, efficiency, and even enjoyability. According to a study published last year by auto-industry analyst IHS Markit and funded by Qualcomm, which is among the tech firms spearheading the development of 5G technology, autonomous vehicle technology will be a major beneficiary of 5G communication—and in fact, will be among the “mission critical services” that will need the most robust and reliably connectivity. 

“5G will be used to enable all forms of extra-vehicle communication, initially to provide more sophisticated advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), and eventually leading to fully autonomous driving,” the report said. The transition will make perhaps the best use of 5G’s ultra-low latency—that is, the immediacy of its response—its high reliability, and its persistent availability.

Another key draw of 5G will be solidifying the connections between vehicles and the “smart cities” of the future. “C-V2X—a.k.a., cellular vehicle-to-everything—is an important technology for improved road safety, traffic efficiency and the future of autonomous driving,” said Nakul Duggal, Qualcomm’s vice president of product management. “It complements the capabilities of other ADAS sensors by providing 360-degree non-line-of-sight awareness, while providing an evolution path for autonomous driving.

Proof of 5G's transportation-centric capabilities is already starting to manifest itself. Earlier this year, I had the chance to experience Hyundai’s newest autonomous-vehicle technology during a demonstration at the Olympic Games in South Korea. A 5G setup had been installed at the athletic venues, allowing the car to pull traffic and traffic-signal data from the network. As a result, it was able to modulate its own speed and progress through town in a more efficient manner, conserving the electric vehicle’s energy.

That, however, was an extremely limited demonstration. While engineers developing future fully-autonomous vehicles are working to ensure they can still function safely absent any data links and in all environments, the benefits of having such links will be huge in terms of improving capability, limiting on-board computational demands, and accessing all available data. Indeed, analysts see a future in which all cars on the road, operating autonomously and linked via thousands of cloud-based computer systems, will sync up their flow with one another via carefully modulated acceleration and braking. 

All of this will depend on lots and lots of bandwidth, of the sort demonstrated in South Korea. Once that's in place, the shackles will be removed, in terms of how much data can actually be used by the world's vehicles. 

“Right now, if you were to broadcast any mapping data from the car while its driving you would want to prioritize which pieces of the data you’re sending over the network,” says autonomy analyst Tasha Keeney, a researcher at ARK Invest. “Perhaps the system doesn’t need to know the color of the sky, for instance. You would take that out so you’re sending a manageable amount of data over cellular. Whereas with 5G you could send full video feed or more information from the full sensor suite if you wanted to. This would be particularly useful if there are human remote operators used to intervene in an emergency, as some systems plan on doing early on.” Robust connectivity will also help with immediate map updates for the navigation and autonomous-drive capabilities, Keeney adds, or by providing data coming off of other sensors around town and in other vehicles.

Though the IHS report cited such safety, convenience, and economic benefits arising from 5G’s boosting of autonomous driving—including the perhaps even more critical impact in the commercial- and industrial-transportation realms—it also noted the less tangible consumer benefits. The bountiful bandwidth will also impact driver and passenger interfaces; multi-gigabit speeds will permit data-intensive augmented reality systems that can provide navigational instructions and vehicle alerts for times when human drivers are at the wheel, and everything else when they’re not. “Since these vehicles will eventually not rely on a human operator at all, the ability to provide media-rich content for passengers will be essential,” the study noted.

AVs will thus will be able to provide riders with high-definition 3-D maps,high-quality video conferencing, augmented reality systems, and, of course, 4K (or even 8K) video streaming so we can get our Netflix fix on the fly. “One possible outcome is that our ‘commutes’ will become an extension of our home, work, or entertainment time,” said Mark Boyadjis, IHS’s global connected car research manager. “Even with the most connected vehicles today, when you’re in the car, on the train, or waiting for the bus, your time shifts from work or leisure to travel activities. In a world with 5G connectivity, all devices and all transit options link into a seamless execution of your time, wherein your 9-to-5 job can include your commutes, versus excluding them. This will drive efficiencies in both the way people use time, as well as the efficiencies in the transportation systems in general.”

Indeed, 5G's capabilities could redefine the world in ways far beyond transportation. 5G will likely push mobile tech to the level of a truly world-changing innovations, according to the IHS study, allowing it to become what the study describes as a “general purpose technology” on par with the printing press, the steam engine, electricity, the telegraph, the automobile, and the Internet itself. Though mobile tech certainly has changed our world in recent years, it hasn’t quite reached that level yet, the study said—until now. “The emergence of 5G is a fulcrum in the evolution of mobile technology from a technology that had transformative impact on personal communication to a true GPT that promises to transform entire industries and economies,” the report said. Qualcomm, by the way, estimates 5G will roll out to mobile devices by 2019 and C-V2X capability as early as 2020.

Of course, all of these benefits presume 5G will be as successful as the loftiest claims suggest. While there’s no doubt that the technology will be significantly better than 4G, there are already hints that it may not be quite as fast as early hopes suggest, with as little as 20 to 50 percent improvements in data speeds in some cases, rather than the epic surges many industries would be counting on. (That said, bandwidth and reliability should still be far greater than current cell networks, in any case.) Looking even farther down the road, speed bumps could emerge in the system’s ability to be available, well, farther down the road. After all, vehicles dependent on connectivity won’t work to their fullest potential if the signals don’t reach them in the mountains, the valleys—or that lonely rest stop deep in South Dakota.

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