5G Could Be Too Busy For Mission Critical Auto Roles

It’s an article of faith for many involved in the assisted/autonomous driving space that 5G wireless technology is mission critical.

Like any technology, though, it isn’t perfect; there are several drawbacks and concerns that companies involved in the future of driving will have to face – particularly in the opening stages. To begin with, the technology needs a very strong foundation. “Initially, 5G coverage along the road network will be the biggest market hindrance to automotive OEMs that are using 5G connections in the vehicles,” says Sam Barker, a senior analyst at Juniper Research.

This stands to reason. Vehicles need to process mountains of information on the fly with almost no latency. This means that the current telecom infrastructure of honeycombed cell towers and bases a respectable distance from each other is not adequate to satisfy this demand; 5G equipment must be bunched much closer together.

“The biggest drawback [to 5G] is equipment density – the cell density required for this order of magnitude improvement over current cellular service,” said Greg McGuire, lab director at assisted driving test facility Mcity. “5G doesn’t use cell towers but requires smaller systems in many more places. There will be more infrastructure to monitor and maintain,” he added.

That’s an understatement. There are over four million miles of road in the US alone. For 5G to work seamlessly, a very large percentage of that must be blanketed with a robust and reliable 5G signal. This is certainly doable, particularly given the strong will both of those places have in developing advanced-level driving capabilities. Still, says Juniper Research’s Barker, “Whilst this is not necessarily a challenge, it certainly will take considerable investment and time in countries with large geographical areas.”

So, it’s not going to be cheap or, probably, quick. Although estimates vary widely, a full rollout of 5G for both automotive and non-automotive use in the US will possibly cost at least $275M. China, a similarly massive land, will also require total investment well in the nine-figure range.

McGuire points out that these daunting technical requirements aren’t the only hurdle. “The regulatory environment to put that infrastructure in place could prove challenging as well,” he said. “Plans will need to be approved at the city, county, state and, sometimes, federal levels. Lease agreements will have to be signed and fiber run to equipment locations.”

Also, since there are many entities – both in the public and private spheres – with a stake in 5G, there will need to be much coordination and cooperation between them. “Building system solutions and evolving a cross-segment eco-systems is a joint undertaking,” said Friedhelm Ramme, business development manager for ITS, transport and automotive at Ericsson. “Mutual learning of business and technical requirements, and about solution components, go hand in hand.”

We should also bear firmly in mind that vehicle connectivity is far from the only game in town with 5G technology having to vie with dedicated short range communications (DSRC) the technology favored by the European Commission and the world’s top carmakers, Volkswagen and Toyota. 5G will also be used to fulfill the huge promise of the Internet of Things (IoT), in which previously “dumb” devices will be smartened up by being fully connected to the world (think of turning on your home lights remotely, or your refrigerator ordering milk for you once it senses that you’ve emptied your carton).

“The biggest challenge is probably that 5G can contribute to advancing many industry segments, a much bigger eco-system than just telecommunication and consumer services,” said Ramme. That means both capital and expertise could be devoted more to such uses than to pure vehicle technology. After all, many of us use our refrigerator or thermostat more often than we drive our cars.

Meanwhile, those aforementioned rollout costs are only for infrastructure, never mind the technology that makes the vehicle 5G-connectable. Barker feels: “The most immediate issue automotive OEMs face is the recurring cost that each individual automotive 5G connection brings.”

That might be prohibitive, at least initially. Yes, consumers will welcome a robust, always-on and lag-free connection. Will they be willing to pay a premium for it, however? Obviously, the automakers have to pass along at least some of their costs, yet there is only so much a driver is willing to pay for certain features. A mid-market sedan with blindingly fast 5G connectivity is a very attractive option; a $65,000 price tag for such a car may not be.

These challenges alone are considerable. We’ve never had to roll out a network this comprehensive, tight and robust anywhere in the world. As with many things assisted and autonomous, the development from beginning to some kind of end could take longer than expected and hoped for – particularly in more economically-challenged environments.

Still, many who are present at the dawn of this technology are optimistic about its potential. “Once the rollout begins, it will likely go quickly,” said McGuire. “Consider the LTE technology rollout for an example of timing. Carriers tackled dense US cities first, then ultimately moved to suburban and rural areas.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *