Thursday 28th January 2021

Why a reliable 5G infrastructure is vital for autonomous vehicles to hit top gear

Published on May 7th, 2019

Preparations for the future of connected transport in the UK and beyond are well underway, says Paul Carter, CEO of GWS. With the recent news that Telefonica-owned mobile network operator O2 will be activating its 5G network for connected and autonomous vehicle (CAV) testing at the Millbrook Proving Ground this June, the UK has made another exciting step on its journey towards nationwide next-generation network coverage. But while CAV technology continues to be developed quickly, the road to the ubiquitous network coverage which they will require is not without speed bumps.

As the EU continues its push for autonomous vehicle communication using Wi-Fi-based standards – despite objections from the telecoms sector and even some members of the bloc itself – many fear that the commercial introduction of a competing technology could cause a slower deployment of mainstream 5G across Europe.

Meeting challenges, achieving expectations

The promise of widespread next-generation network coverage, a very necessary CAV requirement, is often touted to the public. But while 5G is likely to become a significant player when it comes to handling both end-user and backhaul transmission of critical mapping and vehicle-to-vehicle data, it is important to remember that we will see a ‘mesh’ of both new and existing networks at first as 5G is gradually rolled out. Despite our own testing revealing at least 90% 4G coverage across all major British motorways, the fact remains that the level of coverage offered by existing network options will be largely unsuitable for fully autonomous vehicles in the future.

In addition to concerns about ubiquitous coverage, little has been made available regarding detailed plans for redundant backup network capabilities in case of an unexpected intermittent 5G signal. While existing networks will be unable to handle the full strain of autonomous vehicles connectivity, it may be important to rely on their capabilities to communicate a critical 5G network failure to passengers, for example, and alert them to the need for action. There are also the characteristics of the 5G spectrum itself to consider. The higher frequencies that are targeted for 5G don’t allow the signal to travel as far as those on a lower frequency, meaning that cells will require closer proximity to each other in comparison to current network configurations to ensure continuous coverage.

Driving the future of connected transport

As a result of the high connectivity demands of CAVs, it’s vital to ensure that reliable network foundations are in place sooner rather than later. Any government that is serious in its intentions for a swift, future-thinking deployment of mainstream 5G technology must first look to begin building next-generation network technologies into new urban and rural construction projects and other roadside furniture.

Additionally, both central and local authorities must look at reducing restrictive regulations on things like signal mast height and location, and also consider how to help make the widescale provisioning of small cells much cheaper and easier. Private companies also have a significant role to play when it comes to turbocharging investment in 5G, and this means not only building the business case for 5G but communicating it effectively too. 5G has the ability to step change wireless communications technology on a huge scale, and we need businesses to recognise this and help to fund the future if we are to realise the dream of autonomous vehicles with multi-gigabit connections travelling at high-speed on our roads.

The massive amount of CAV data that must be consistently transferred at high speed to allow fully autonomous driving also points to the critical need for network-wide testing that is both rigorous and routine. Just as stats about connection speeds are much less important to consumers than knowing they will be able to reliably connect to their network whenever they need it, achieving ‘superfast’ speeds under controlled conditions matters far less to the future of autonomous transport than ensuring reliability of data connectivity, communication and coverage across a live nationwide transport network. To be sure that any network is delivering on customer expectations (and meeting safety, traffic and other related CAV requirements), it’s crucial that plans are put in place for robust real-world testing so that stress points can be identified and fixed long before they have chance to cause disruption.

For 5G to deliver on its promise and pave the way for fully autonomous vehicles in the UK and beyond, we will need to see increased communication and cooperation between all interested parties. Regulators, service providers, tech firms and, of course, operators themselves must come up with solutions for a robust 5G infrastructure that meets everyone’s ambitions for more reliable high-speed coverage. It will take a large amount of effort and funding from all parties to fully realise the potential of 5G, but we only need to look at the benefits that next-generation network connectivity can bring to see why it’s important to do so.

The author is Paul Carter, CEO of GWS

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