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Verizon and Sprint are ramping up their presence in autonomous vehicle (AV) technology development. The US-based wireless carriers will independently provide 5G services to test use cases in AV deployment.
Verizon will test its service in collaboration with the University of Michigan, which established an MCity facility to test AVs in a simulated city environment. Sprint will conduct 5G connectivity tests in Georgia, at the Peachtree Corners smart city testing facility. These kinds of facilities allow academic and corporate research teams to collaborate on developing AV tech, avoiding the liability associated with real-world deployments.
Access to 5G networks will enable firms working in the AV space to make major technological advancements. While 3G and 4G networks can handle beaming Spotify or text messages to vehicle infotainment systems, they are too slow to be relied on to transmit data that would impact vehicle navigation.
5G networks are expected to be over 10 times faster than 4G networks, enabling them to support machine-to-machine communication that would reliably supplement onboard autonomous navigation systems. Here are a few use cases that illustrate the potential of the technology in this realm:
- Faster, more fuel-efficient driving. 5G could enable vehicles to communicate with each other in near-real time, thus greatly reducing the risk of collision, even at high speeds. In a world with only 5G-connected vehicles, traffic would be able to travel at over 100 mph, with only a few inches of space between each car. This bumper-to-bumper style of travel, known as platooning, also makes cars more energy efficient, with some tests resulting in 7% fuel savings. Professor David Teece, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, estimated that highway capacity would increase by 50% to 80% if all vehicles communicate and navigate using a 5G network and autonomous systems.
- Safer driving. In 2018, more than 40,000 people died in roadway deaths in the US. An estimated 94% of these crashes were caused by human error, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. These deaths are often touted as one of the reasons we should embrace autonomous driving, but as we have seen with several high-profile accidents, even AVs are not immune from roadway accidents. 5G connectivity can supplement in-vehicle autonomous systems to make them even safer. The current AV technology relies on sensors onboard the vehicle, which limits the system from processing information outside the line of site. 5G could provide additional vantage points from stationary sensors, which would be of particular value in areas with sharp turns, for instance.
The interest in supporting AVs being shown by Verizon and Sprint is an opportunity for automakers to accelerate their own self-driving vehicle ambitions in the US. While 5G features may create near-term competitive advantages, the true value of the technology will be unlocked through collaboration.
This is something automakers and telecoms are already doing in other regions of the world. For example, BMW is working with China Unicom to develop and test autonomous vehicles (AVs) on experimental 5G networks. The partnership will also see the German automaker and Chinese telecom explore different scenarios and applications for AVs.
According to BMW Group Region China president and CEO Jochen Goller, cited by RCR Wireless, "5G mobile communication technologies will have an overwhelming impact on the auto industry, which is in the middle of a transformation towards digitalization. The extensive cooperation with China Unicom is a crucial step in BMW’s active planning and investment for the 5G era." As such, automakers in the US should work closely with network providers to establish industry standards, allowing vehicles to communicate across a standardized system.
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