Autotech and Connectivity: A Tale of Two Cities at CES and MWC

This is an exciting time of the year for anyone interested in connectivity and the automotive industry.

It is the midpoint between the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas and Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona. It’s a time when everyone is trying to digest all the automotive announcements and trends that emerged at CES (now one of the largest automotive shows) and what, if anything, to anticipate about automotive at MWC.

The Las Vegas Convention Center’s new West Hall was the home to 300 automotive related exhibitors and around 150 automotive announcements were made. Keynote speeches headlined new concept cars, such as BMW’s iDee (digital emotional experience) concept car with a new operating system, advanced voice control and fully controllable heads-up display (HUD) windscreen. There was the new Peugeot/Stellantis EV concept car with a claimed 500-mile range and the Dodge Ram 1500 revolution battery electric vehicles (BEV), all built on the STLA platform. Honda and Sony announced that their Afeela BEV would start shipping in North America in 2026. Volkswagen teased with its new camouflaged ID.7 BEV which will also have an AR based HUD.

Qualcomm, not content with a continued string of announcements about who is using their platform, including the above mentioned Afeela, decided to show its own concept vehicle. The vehicle showcased the company’s Snapdragon Digital Chassis solution, together with technologies from an ecosystem of partners, to demonstrate the ability to deliver immersive entertainment experiences, driver assistance and enhanced safety. The platform will also allow the new partnership between Qualcomm and to showcase how the chip-to-cloud continuum can transform the automotive industry.

The underlying theme to emerge from CES is the firm establishment of the software defined vehicle (SDV) concept within the automotive industry, based on platforms that have huge amounts of onboard processing power and intelligence. These platforms are enabling the automotive automakers to accelerate the development and introduction of BEVs, update their internal combustion engine (ICE) portfolios and introduce over the air updates. This constitutes the basis of an industry transformation of its existing business model.

All of this relies on connectivity. However, as Mike Dano, a colleague at a sister publication,  Light Reading, notes, he went looking for 5G at CES and it was conspicuous by its absence. The speculation is that, in the US, 5G is already the default technology in all new phones.

So, what is the global state of 5G at the start of 2023? According to the GSA, the global suppliers’ association, there are currently about 1Bn 5G subscribers globally (about 15% of all smartphone users) on 243 commercial 5G networks. In addition, there are another 515 network operators looking at, testing and planning 5G infrastructure. It is estimated that between now and 2025, the mobile industry will spend $650Bn on 5G capital expenditure.

However, there is a catch. Most of these subscribers are on what is known as non-standalone 5G. This is where the 5G new radios (5G NR) have been attached to the existing 4G LTE core network which means that the full potential of 5G, in terms of speed and features, is not yet fully available. To gain the full advantage of 5G NR requires 5G standalone (5G SA) which needs the introduction of a 5G cloud based virtualized network core.  Currently, there are only 36 network operators in 21 countries that have this capability. T-Mobile in the US has had a 5G SA network operational since August 2020 and it continues to claim to be the only totally national SA network.

Given the apparent lessening of 5G hype at CES and, given the criticality of SDV platforms, what are the things to be looking for at MWC 2023?  It would be good to walk away with a feeling that the mobile industry is recognizing what the autotech industry is already realizing: that the vehicle has moved from a smartphone on wheels, beyond a server on wheels, to becoming a mobility edge on wheels. SDV plus edge computing is the huge 5G opportunity now and mobile operators don’t need to wait for autonomous vehicles to take advantage of their 5G networks.

Specifically, we are looking for evidence of 5G SA becoming a reality because of the essential capabilities it releases, including the deployment of network slicing. 5G network slicing allows the creation of multiple virtualized and independent networks to be created on top of a common physical infrastructure. These independent, logical network slices with specific attributes can benefit multiple use cases, such as supporting smart factories. This is a key area of focus for automotive manufacturers.

In addition, at MWC we will look for evidence of the continued evolution of 5G Advanced as this is essential to enabling the intelligent edge. One aspect of 5G Advance is sidelink, which is the ability of one device to directly link to another device without the need of a network. This is similar technology to cellular vehicle to everything (C-V2X) and will allow billions of IoT devices in traffic, roadway and smart city infrastructure, as well as smart electricity grids, to transmit among themselves and share directly with vehicles and pedestrians to enhance safety and reduce congestion.

After five years of 5G Automotive Association (5GAA) efforts and achievements, the organization is generally recognized as the leading global advocate for automotive connectivity. In September last year, it updated its roadmap for expected mass deployment of C-V2X use cases to reflect regional safety regulations or incentives, specifically Europe and China NCAP as well as the EU Commission Delegated Regulation on detected road safety-related events or conditions. It will be interesting to see what the 5GAA ecosystem showcases in Barcelona, given this updated roadmap and the release this month of a report on recommendations for communications service providers support of road operators.

Two other areas of interest at MWC that will have an impact on automotive are satellite communication and, of course, 6G. Statistics from the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) database show that the maximum number of satellites launched between 1958 and 2012 was never more than 78; then in 2013 it passed 100 and by 2021 it reached 1,722. At CES, Qualcomm announced that its Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 platform will support the Iridium satellite constellation, allowing smartphones to receive and send messages anywhere. It is anticipated this will migrate to cars as well.

The High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS) Alliance is proposing a stratosphere network that will provide ultrawide 3D coverage that expands the horizontal coverage beyond terrestrial networks but, more significantly, adds vertical coverage for drones and eVTOL Robo taxis. It is hosting a “power hour” session on March 1st at MWC.

6G is still at a very early stage but it is a contentious area because some say it is nothing more than the mobile industry trying to continue its intellectual property gravy train and why do you need generational shifts in a software defined age? Others are concerned about geopolitics between the US and China creating a fragmented global network technology. Others point out that many developing countries are still at an early stage of 4G LTE development.

From an automotive perspective, the continuity of services across generations is the biggest issue. The sunsetting of 2G/3G services in the US was completed in 2022 and has abandoned approximately 30M cars without connectivity. In Europe, the push to re-farm spectrum and sunset either 2G or 3G services could render the eCall system inoperable which, from as safety perspective, is unacceptable. As connectivity becomes ever more intrinsic to safety systems there is a real requirement for the telecoms and automotive industry to align technology roadmaps. Active participation by the automotive industry at MWC, as well as in 5G and 6G development and timelines, is essential.

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