In these tough times of lockdown and social distancing, we would be forgiven for thinking back to the days when we were still driving across the country – and remembering the experience as one of sheer delight. Few things today sound as rewarding as slowly coasting along a mountain road late at night, or bolting through a clear motorway under a blazing Sun. But, in fact, the everyday experience of driving in a city can be quite different from those storybook vignettes – more often than not, drivers would end up stuck in traffic jams, desperately staring ahead in hope of a sudden unclogging or a liberating green-wave. American drivers spend an average of 54 hours a year stuck in traffic; in London, the congested city par excellence, that can spiral to 227 hours annually.
As we slowly march towards a return to normalcy, we should do so keeping in mind that things do not have to be that way. As super-fast 5G connectivity starts catching on, a new, smoother mobility beckons. 5G speed, instant network response, and robustness are already ushering in an era of smart cars and smart streets.
To boot, 5G connectivity would allow vehicles to communicate more efficiently with each other, and with the urban environment around them. Connected cars equipped with LiDAR, cameras and connectivity would be able to harvest and share important information – about weather conditions, road conditions, road signals, or traffic flows – and flag them to other cars. “We have already enabled vehicle-to-vehicle communication in most of Europe,” says Martin Kristensson, Vice President Digital Business at Volvo Cars. “We track if a Volvo car turns on its hazard lights – and then we send that information over the mobile network to the cloud, to warn all the other Volvo cars approaching that position.” In that way, incoming vehicles will be alerted about an accident ahead, and maybe choose another route.
Another frequent usage of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology is the sharing of braking data – which, in a similar way, can be pooled to warn oncoming vehicles about unexpected situations or budding traffic jams.
“You will have notifications and warnings in real time on what’s going on in front of you. This information can be an assistant, a help to optimise your trip.” explains Charlotte Lundén, Head of Sales Readiness Connected Vehicles at Ericsson, the Swedish networking and telecommunications company and a leading 5G supplier.
“What’s important with a 5G network is that it works also when there is no line of sight. There are situations where the cars cannot ‘see’ each other and their LiDAR and radar cannot detect each other. But the network works as a complementing sensor in order to communicate between the vehicles.”
Some of these features are already available today, relying on 3G or 4G technology, but at a small scale only. 5G’s advent will radically turbocharge its spread and reach. “To enable this to happen at a larger scale with more vehicles and more co-operation between vehicles, you need 5G,” says Claes Herlitz, VP and Head of Connected Vehicles at Ericsson. “There’s a multitude of reasons: energy consumption, bandwidth necessary for the amount of data transmitted, and faster network response time, for instance.”
According to Volvo Car’s Kristensson, 5G will make a huge difference in enabling car-to-car communication. “We’ll have communication directly between cars, or between car and infrastructure, such as traffic lights. And much faster,” he says.
5G-aided V2V will play a decisive role in allowing for quick rerouting and preventing accidental traffic jams. But in the long run, 5G will open the door to much more than that: driverless vehicles.
“We are looking at autonomous public transport in cities,” says Magnus Leonhardt, Head of Business Development and Innovation at Telia, one of the major communications service providers in Sweden. “We have been part of supporting different autonomous bus projects in certain areas of Stockholm, and we’re also looking at running autonomous buses in public areas.” While the actual self-driving will not need internet connectivity, 5G will enhance safety and smoothness, constantly transmitting real-time updates on whatever is happening in the car’s surroundings, from accidents to bad weather.
Leonhardt believes that, going ahead, 5G might allow for full “chains of mobility” – in which data and navigation planning is supported across different platforms and means of transport. “If we are going to have cities in the future that are fully populated with autonomous vehicles, we’ll need standardisation around how this system should work beyond the connectivity,” he predicts. Driverless buses will need to talk with other buses, but also with self-driving cabs, with motorcycles, and – why not? – with flying vehicles. Everything will work in concert to reduce snags and delays. On motorways, trucks will communicate with each other to minimise the distance between them and “platoon” along the road – a technique that might reduce congestion and decrease fuel consumption.
That is how 5G will bring about the end-game of the driving experience, says Kristensson. “Once you get to the autonomous stage, the driving experience will be more of a riding experience,” he says. “And 5G will also be important because when you’re riding in an autonomous car, presumably you want to do something else and you might consume media.” A 5G connection will allow you to quickly stream any film, podcast or online video game.
Will all this finally spell the end of traffic jams?
“5G will no doubt create a more sustainable society,” Ericsson’s Herlitz says. “Once you go a little bit more self-driving you will see a much better traffic flow.” He adds that we will also see car sharing going up, as more people instead of using their own car turn to autonomous-car-as-a-service as a new way to commute.
Thanks to 5G, fleet owners will be able to gather a vast amount of high-quality drive data and insights in real time. That would not only make for a more efficient fleet management: those troves of data will also be precious for deep learning models aimed at improving driver-assist systems. Building on that over time, fleet owners might be able to deploy semi-autonomous or fully autonomous fleets, offering 5G-powered high-definition infotainment to their passengers. According to the Ericsson Mobility Report, by 2030 the auto sector is set to be among the top four industries providing 5G-enabled services.
Kristensson from Volvo is not so sure that all that will upend congestion – but he also thinks it doesn’t matter.
“Maybe there will still be traffic jams – but it will be a more enjoyable experience to be in that traffic jam, because you’re not driving yourself and you can do video calls, work remotely, or watch a movie,” he says. “Maybe you won’t care that much that you’re stuck in traffic anymore.”
For more information, visit ericsson.com/5g