5G Seen As Key for Autonomous Urban Fleets, Offering Revenue Opportunities for Telecommunications Providers
A number of interesting take-aways came out of back to back meetings held December 5-6 at the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) headquarters in Arlington, VA. While it’s no longer a surprise that “smart car” and similar technologies are developing faster than many anticipated even a year ago, progress continues to be rapid. The automotive and telecommunications sectors, nearly strangers to each other in the fairly recent past, are increasingly working together as various autonomous transportation solutions become more viable.
The first half-day meeting, “Autonomous Transportation Workshop: How Communications will Change Vehicles and Transport,” was sponsored by TIA and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The workshop led off by noting that today’s autonomous vehicles, many still in the prototype phase, rely on on-board sensors, including radar and laser-based light detection and ranging (LIDAR) systems. Even as these “on-board only” vehicles become increasingly sophisticated, the processing power that needs to be resident in a vehicle is highly robust, and expensive. In sparsely populated and light-traffic areas, on-board systems may provide significant driver assistance, but may not be sufficient for fully autonomous operations.
The Role of 5G #
In denser urban areas, as 5G infrastructure is deployed, multiple connections to each vehicle, paired with “mini data centers” at various tower sites, will result in large volumes of data that can be used to manage driverless fleets of vehicles, most likely for delivery or ride-sharing purposes. 5G infrastructure will need to be highly dense to keep autonomous vehicle services from degrading.
This represents an opportunity for both the automotive and telecommunications industries, and has led the automotive sector to become involved in 5G standards. While questions remain about whether fixed home or business Internet access would be sufficient to justify highly dense 5G deployment (which is necessary due to the short-range of many 5G technologies), the prospect of a large number of autonomous vehicles maximizing their potential over 5G networks makes the infrastructure investment easier to justify in more urban areas.
As more “smart” vehicles hit the roads, telecommunications companies will need to have networks ready that can carry terabits of data per hour. It is anticipated that multiple carriers will need to have these robust networks available, as redundancy will be key to achieving the low latency that autonomous vehicles will require. Networks will also need to be able to support “over-the-air” updates of vehicle software, and to efficiently transfer maintenance and similar data. Of course, all this network usage will require that small cell sites, as well as their longer-range counterparts, will be connected to fiber networks to carry and distribute this much information.
As fast as the technology of “smart cars” is progressing, there are a lot of telecommunications infrastructure issues to be worked out. These include attachment rights, access to sufficient spectrum, and efficient ways for vehicles to have the on-board equipment necessary to take advantage of all the data flows that can help them reach their potential. It is also anticipated that geofencing technology will be used to manage delivery and ride-sharing fleets, and to track where fully driverless vehicles may not be able to operate due to a lack of 5G deployment. In these situations, various levels of driver assist functions, such as “super cruise/hands off/feet off,” and methods to monitor drivers’ attention to the road, for example, would still allow a level of autonomy for smart vehicles in circumstances that will continue to require human operation.
Vehicle to Vehicle Communication #
On top of the massive amounts of data that smart vehicles will feed into 5G networks, vehicles are expected to communicate over short ranges directly with each other to enhance safety and efficiency. Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) technologies are making a lot of strides, so that each car can “know” what the others in the immediate vicinity are doing, or about to do, and to share information quickly when something unexpected happens.
In addition to acting as a mobile “mesh” network to communicate with each other, vehicles will also transmit what’s going on back to data centers for distribution, analysis, and near-real time updates. Traffic conditions will be continually updated, as will mapping data. Both would prove to be extremely useful for travelers, as well as for driverless services, as they will be able to plan their most efficient routes before they leave, or adjust them on the fly based on fast updates to changing conditions.
The full agenda and list of speakers at the workshop is available here.
[Editor’s Note: In a January 25th, 2018 press release, MEMA, the Motor and Equipment Manufacturer’s Association, called for the NHSTA to adopt the mandate for V2V communications proposed a full year ago saying, “deployment of a 5.9 GHz, DSRC V2V system is critical to achieve the next level of vehicle safety enhancements necessary to reduce fatalities on U.S. roadways today.”]
Standards Development Underway #
Needless to say, there are many standards and technical issues to be worked out as the automotive and telecommunications industries collaborate to make autonomous vehicles a reality. The next day, TIA hosted the ITU’s Collaboration on Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) meeting. The full agenda is available online.
There is no shortage of working groups engaged in covering a variety of topics. ITU Work items include:
- Objective methods for vehicles speech & audio evaluation;
- Vehicle gateway platforms;
- ITS communications security;
- Internet of Things (IoT) to support ITS;
- Radio/frequency ITS issues.
Cybersecurity as it relates to smart vehicles is also a major topic, with several sub-categories of its own. In addition to the cybersecurity of vehicles’ on-board systems, there are efforts underway to enhance the security of communications with and among autonomous vehicles, as well as the security involved with providing “over the air” software updates.
The interest in autonomous vehicle standards truly spans the globe. Among those making contributions to various efforts include:
- The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE International);
- Japan’s Telecommunications Technology Committee Work Group on Connected Cars;
- Wireless World Research Forum (WWRF) Work Group on The Connected Car;
- International Standards Organization (ISO) Technical Committee 204 on the Infrastructure of ITS;
- Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Vehicular Technology Society (IEEE VTS);
- United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations –
- Intelligent Transport Systems and Automated Driving (ITS/AD)
- UN Task Force on Cyber security and OTA issues.
Documents, presentations and other materials provided at the meeting are publicly available from the ITU. For those inclined to looking into the standards development process, there is a lot of interesting reading. There is doubtless much more to come in the near future as smart vehicles and intelligent transportation systems continue to advance.
Steve Pastorkovich is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant specializing in telecommunications, trade association operations, and public policy.