5G will fuel the driverless experience

Published: 4 March 2020 - 9:26 a.m.

From the telecommunications industry to retail, government and brand marketing, 5G seems to be on everyone’s lips these days. As 2020 moves into full swing, these conversations are only likely to pick up steam, especially with the further expansion of 5G infrastructure and network deployments across the globe.

At the same time, speculation about the potential use-cases of this game-changing technology, beyond merely consumer-focused applications, continues apace. With unprecedented speeds, extremely low latency and exponentially greater bandwidth, the advent of 5G technology promises to usher in a new era of information-sharing and interfacing, in a way that 4G only touched upon, but never fully accomplished.

It’s fair to say that the technology is much closer to a reality than it was at around the same time last year. Just pick up any newspaper or scroll through the digital news feed on your smartphone and it seems that 5G is taking off everywhere. From the United States to Japan and from the United Kingdom to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, India, China, Australia and Indonesia, it’s only a matter of time before the technology becomes ubiquitous and an indelible part of our lives, as was proven with the advent of 4G several years ago.

While much has been made of 5G’s applications for the everyday user experience – more immersive videos and augmented reality being just the tip of the iceberg – its underlying role in powering the ecosystem needed to get driverless cars up and running on our roads has been somewhat muted at best. At this point in time, an array of companies including Uber, Tesla, Toyota, General Motors and Alphabet’s Waymo, among many others, are currently in various stages of testing self-driving technology. Pittsburgh, London, Hamburg, Beijing and Dubai are just a tithe of the cities where driverless car testing is underway. According to a study by Statista, a tenth of all cars in the world will be self-driving by the year 2030.

Before we delve into this concept further, it’s important to consider the foundational criteria – and they are very demanding, to say the least – that need to be fulfilled. They can be summed up in these two key words: ‘reactivity’ and ‘real-time’. Any automated, self-driven vehicle will essentially have to replicate the instincts and reflexes of a human being. This means being able to adapt and react, literally, to conditions on the road with split-second timing.

The fact is that current technology precludes driverless cars from reaching their full potential. An effective and truly automated, driverless experience, calls for the instantaneous flow of information between various sensors. Anything that falls short of that and the resulting outcome could be catastrophic. Notwithstanding the road tests that are currently underway around the world, current 4G networks are simply not fast enough and do not have the capability to give autonomous vehicles the near-human reflexes needed to make them road-safe and community-friendly.

This is where the symbiotic relationship between 5G and driverless technology comes in. A commonly perpetuated misconception these days is that 5G is simply an upgrade from 4G – a high-octane version of the latter, if you will. This is simply not true. With a clear performance edge over 4G, 5G is a game-changer, capable of carrying a deluge of information over networks at blinding speeds. This will enable vehicles to make the needed split-second decisions, and to respond accordingly. Of course, the caveat is that the widescale deployment of 5G networks will be needed to make driverless cars a reality.

Road safety, lower transportation costs and environmental sustainability are also benefits. How? 5G technology could be used to give a boost to ‘platooning’ – a concept wherein multiple vehicles are synced together electronically so as to move together in a group, right behind one another. This would reduce the number of commutes on the road – thus fewer incidents – as well as emissions. Done on a large scale in the distant future and the reduction in the carbon footprint could be substantial.

The wider smart city ecosystem and underlying infrastructure needed to support road transportation systems will undergo an evolution and reach a new level of sophistication as well. Let us take traffic control as an example. Multiple sensors and the Internet of Things will render traffic control systems a lot ‘smarter’, with traffic lights in constant communication and working in tandem with driverless cars to optimize travel routes and operate in the most effective – and sustainable – way possible. At the same time, real-time traffic information, such as accidents on a pre-synchronized route, will also be made readily available to car sensors much faster than ever before. These services will be delivered via a low-latency 5G network, with its own dedicated network slices.

There is a huge and untapped opportunity here for service providers to monetize a promising market, by offering a plethora of services for driverless cars and their owners, in conjunction with car manufacturers. At a basic level, it starts with connecting vehicles to their 5G networks – which should be an essential item on any automotive manufacturer’s checklist. Once this is taken care of, capabilities such as real-time traffic visibility and intelligence, automated repair updates, as well as supplemental services such as work productivity (faster video-conferencing, anyone?) and advanced entertainment options are just some of the services that will become automatically embedded within the vehicle. But of course, let us not forget that all this hinges on the requisite 5G infrastructure and its enabling capabilities, for service providers to monetize those opportunities to begin with.

As far as the region is concerned, the prospects for 5G technology and self-driving cars look promising indeed. In line with strategic transformation initiatives being implemented by various GCC governments, Etisalat, Du, STC and Zain are leading the way in 5G deployment and expansion. So far, the UAE’s carriers have achieved the distinction of being the first in the Middle East to introduce 5G-enabled devices. According to a report by the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA), 5G will account for 16 per cent of total connections in the Middle East and North Africa by 2025. The same report also states that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain will be among the first countries in the world to launch commercial 5G networks. Coupled with the Internet of Things and the ‘smartification’ of cities, it’s quite clear that we are headed straight for a 5G-dominated ecosystem, encompassing consumers, the government and private industry.

The UAE is known as a pioneering country when it comes to the regulation of electric vehicles and it looks like autonomous vehicles will follow suit, paving the way for driverless cars to operate on the country’s roads as early as next year. The ambitious Dubai Autonomous Transportation Strategy aims to make all transportation within the city of Dubai autonomous by the year 2030. Of course, we are still several years away from this coming to fruition and much may happen during the that time. Driverless car tests have been conducted in the country for a while, at the same time that there has been encouraging momentum in 5G network deployment. Although we have yet to see not only the crystallization of both technologies, but also their symbiosis, it seems that the region is well-placed to further push their adoption and reap the benefits.

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