Is 5G The Answer for Autonomous Vehicles?


A webinar recently tossed out this question: “5G: The new fuel for the connected car?” A critical issue, for connected (and autonomous) vehicles, and the entire IoT, is the wireless networks that these developments will depend upon. This issue has come to increasingly focus on the development of 5G.

5G – Grandiose Visions

The visions set forth for 5G have been nothing short of magnificent, holding out promise of stunning benefits. To support massive increases in transmission volumes (which we described as the “Mobile Traffic Deluge” in our 2011 study), a series of quantum leaps in performance of transmission networks are required. 5G is envisioned to incorporate virtually all of these, including, most prominently the following – as stated in an academic paper:

“Therefore, the following are the most important elements in the description of 5G: high throughput, low-latency, high reliability, increased scalability, and energy efficient mobile communication technology.”

(“5G Mobile Tech – A Survey,”, 2015)

For example, download speeds are to be increased to 1-10Gbps, (gigabits – billion bits – per second) versus current 4G download speeds, in the U.S. of 9.9Mbps (megabits – million bits – per second). Latency is to be reduced by a factor of 5X, with a target for end-to-end transmission as low as 5ms, (milliseconds) and more like 1ms for transmissions between moving vehicles. Other spectacular claims cover Increased Data Volume; Energy Efficiency; Network Coverage; and other key factors.

5G and Autonomous Vehicles

All of these claims could be critical to the future of autonomous vehicles. In the recent webinar, Roger Berg, Vice President, Wireless Technologies of Denso North America, acknowledged that the principal objectives, or “use cases” for 5G were all highly relevant to connected/autonomous vehicles, namely: 1. Enhanced mobile broadband, 2. Ultra high reliability and low latency, and 3. Massive machine communications.

He noted that there is not much connectivity being used in autos currently. However, with Uber, as one example, beginning to deploy automated driving, he expected increased attention to vehicle connectivity, with the major breakout occurring after 2020.

“Vehicle-to-Everything,” V2X, The Goal

With respect to connected and autonomous vehicles, there is considerable discussion about the objective of V2X, vehicle-to-everything. This includes V2V and V2I (Vehicle-to-Vehicle and Vehicle-to-Infrastructure), and even other “V2s” including pedestrians, homes, etc.

Berg made the interesting observation, however, that in looking at different applications, one transmission system or protocol would not be optimal for all. He pointed to DSRC (Dedicated Short Range Communications) a band created by the FCC in 1999 that contains 75MHz of spectrum in the 5.9GHz range.

He expressed the hope that a mandate from DOT would prevail and that DSRC would be used. He describes it as a network, “built solely for transportation – not infotainment.” It is optimized for features such as safety, hazardous weather warning and crash avoidance. He points out that it does not capture any personally identifiable information about users, avoiding many security issues.

While DSRC is optimized for these functions, Berg states that it leaves room for 5G to be used for other functions, such as infotainment and certain autonomy functions.

Our Take: Issues and Timing

Regarding autonomous vehicles, there is a surge of forecasts coming out from industry players: e.g., Ford – fully autonomous vehicles by 2021; GM – self-driving cars on the road by 2020; BMW- a launch by 2021; Toyota – first models by 2020; Tesla – models to be ready by 2018.

At the same time 5G development is proceeding, with the plan to have a completed standard in place by end of 2019, with rollouts anticipated to begin by 2020.

The likely rate of implementation of 5G by carriers, however, is far from clear. Costs remain to be defined and revenue flows are uncertain. Furthermore, the adoption rates of 4G by carriers hardly provide any precedent for 5G. The mobile carriers, led by Verizon, rushed to implement 4G, because there was a credible rival mobile data technology of global scope, namely WiMAX. It is at least dubious that the carriers will, in the next few years, be as anxious to implement 5G, since there is no competitive technology of similar scope on the horizon.

In addition, it has been recognized increasingly – and was discussed in the webinar described above – that existing technologies, including 4G, are being enhanced, and for some use cases can provide solutions that may reduce or obviate the need for 5G. In addition to DSRC, a participant in the webinar representing the 5G trade and advocacy group, 5G Americas, explained that they see a continuum of technology development leading up to 5G and he pointed to LTE Advanced Pro (LTE-A Pro), as an example.

Qualcomm claims that LTE-A Pro can deliver V2X capability for connected vehicles, utilizing the 4G cellular network and shorter distance V2V transmission, (the latter of which exceeds the distance the DSRC systems can serve.) LTE-A Pro, which is in trials or early implementations by a number of carriers, is designed to achieve data speeds of 3Gbps or greater, with latency of 2ms.

Both the timing and the case for widespread adoption of 5G in the connected/autonomous vehicle field are hazy at best. The issue is not whether 5G will occur, but more related to: spotty implementation; passage of time, that will leave the mobile industry open to entirely new architectural approaches to wireless, the outlines of which can already be perceived. We will intensely examine the range of possibilities in future articles.

Specifically regarding connected/autonomous vehicles, the DSRC situation is indicative of another major question. Although the spectrum for DSRC was awarded almost 20 years ago, and there are a number of equipment vendors (including Denso), the auto industry did very little with it.

Now, under the prodding of a horde of supplier companies and under the threat from others, most notably Tesla, the car companies are having to defend their exclusive access to the 75MHz of valuable spectrum, at a time when other very strong interests – from cable companies and others – have emerged. The FCC is considering alternative uses of the spectrum that could seriously undermine its use for vehicles.

This may suggest the question of how seriously the car companies are prepared for real transformation in their business and the car companies may not be alone in needing to be ready.

The forces on the networks of tomorrow being generated by the autonomous vehicle, IOT and current demand trends very likely will test the answers we have been living with so far on Network topology:

  • The role of the Core
  • The role of the Edge
  • The role of the Device

In the evolution of the Network, where is the value equation (and assets) going, who are the players to take note of?

Note: The webinar “5G: The new fuel for the connected car?” was sponsored by TU-Automotive