5G Brings Future Transportation Scenarios Closer to Reality
High-speed 5G communications are key to widespread adoption of autonomous ridesharing. High-speed connectors, fiber cabling, and the Internet of Things will all play a role.
By Neil Shurtz
Today, there’s widespread investment in the idea that someday private car ownership will be a thing of the past. Instead, cars will be self-driving and owned by companies like Uber and Lyft. Rented to consumers only when they need them, these shared vehicles will eliminate the hassles and expenses of driving, car maintenance, and insurance. The challenge this idea poses to the automotive and transportation industries is vast, but 5G and its attendant electronics will be at its core.
Technology is challenging traditional industries across the board, but the automotive and transportation industries are facing a wholesale transformation. The “disruptive” business models of Silicon Valley are converging with huge plans for infrastructure overhaul and transformative changes in automotive engineering, creating a massive demand for new hardware. In a not-too-distant future, individual vehicles and transportation infrastructure will be connected to the world of data. Designers are already planning the hardware interface between infrastructure and the cloud, employing a vast array of connectors, sensors, cabling, and other supporting equipment. However, exactly which types of components will be in demand depends on the direction the technology goes, which isn’t yet entirely clear.
Centralized or Decentralized?
There are two possibilities for the way autonomous vehicle-enabling connected infrastructure could go: a centralized system, where computers control the flow of traffic through infrastructure-mounted sensors and networks, or a decentralized system, where individual vehicles make the driving decisions. There are pros and cons to both systems, and there is still debate about which approach should be adopted.
Each of these scenarios poses a different need for sensors, connectors, cabling, and other components. In a decentralized system, on-board electronics will play the major role, including vehicle-mounted cameras capable of machine vision, as well as lidar and radar units. Many of these devices have been in development for years and are available on production cars.
Some vehicles, including those sold by Tesla, are equipped with all the hardware necessary for full autonomy; only the software and legal aspects need to be hammered out. Interestingly, much of the sensor equipment on Teslas is from traditional auto parts manufacturers. For example, Tesla radar units are supplied by Bosch, or more recently Continental. Introducing another industry debate around the direction these technologies will go, Tesla specifically avoids lidar in its vehicles, but firms including Velodyne have been producing automotive-specific lidar units for years and the technology is considered by many automakers to be essential for autonomy.
The foundation for a decentralized autonomous infrastructure is now in place with these hardware elements already in production cars. Realizing centralized autonomy, however, will require significant investment at the infrastructure level.
The Role of 5G
Centrally controlled infrastructure is essentially an application of the Internet of Things (IoT), which comes with its own emerging set of network and component requirements. Complex IoT applications like centrally controlled autonomous vehicles will need to be able to transmit large amounts of data very quickly and reliably. For example, cars will need to be able to transmit rich lidar data through the network to a computer and receive instructions fast enough to take action. Forthcoming 5G standards aim to meet this demand with speeds 10 times faster than 4G and with lower latency, as higher latency is one of the primary roadblocks for using 4G for IoT applications.
5G network architecture will feature significantly more small, densely packed cells than previous network technologies and will need to be connected by fiber, which is critical for the cabling industry. The transition to 5G will necessarily come with a shift from copper cabling and components to optical fiber for cellular networks. Connector and cable manufacturers are designing new products to handle the requirements of centrally controlled autonomous car networks.
When Will 5G Be Ready for This?
So how far off is the widespread rollout of the 5G infrastructure necessary for centrally controlled autonomous vehicles? Like many aspects of this story, that seems to be unclear. The websites of manufacturers of 5G hardware are full of language suggesting the 5G world is just around the corner, but others are less optimistic about the timeline.
Some analysts mention a number of issues with 5G implementation, including a chicken-and-egg problem where car manufacturers are unwilling to include 5G components in cars until a network is available, and network providers are unwilling to build out a network until customers are available. The technology, like Ericsson’s 5G NR radio, exists, but adoption may lag. All of this points to a distant horizon for the rollout of the kind of 5G network that would support centrally controlled autonomous vehicles.
Expect a Hybrid Approach
In talks given at the 2017 IoT World Congress, people working in the autonomous vehicle and connected infrastructures industries agreed that while many of the building blocks for this type of connected infrastructure exist, mass rollout is still several years away. What’s more likely than either decentralized or centralized approaches is a hybrid approach — at least until 5G is ubiquitous.
“I think it often is presented as an either/or decision, when I think […] in reality it’s going to be a hybridized blend of both,” said Preston Holmes, then head of IoT Solutions at Google Cloud, at that conference. Tasks “can be dual implemented both on the [car] side as well as the cloud side […] the idea is that you would branch the request simultaneously to both implementations, and use whichever is best or fastest.”
If Holmes and his colleagues are right, we’ll likely see systems utilizing connectors, cables, and sensor components related to both types of autonomous vehicle networks, with a gradual transition to central control. Other debates, like the importance of lidar, will continue for the foreseeable future. It may not be immediately obvious how trends like the “sharing economy” and rideshare companies translate to big demands for cabling (and in this case fiber cables) but scratching the surface reveals that they definitely do.
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