Autonomous Cars Won’t Work – Until We Have 5G

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BARCELONA, SPAIN – FEBRUARY 27: Autonomous car with Sk Telecom 5G Korea during the Mobile World Congress (MWC). (Photo by Miquel Benitez/Getty Images)

Self-driving cars have evolved from lab-based, “technology of the future” to “this is really happening” technology that can be seen on our roadways. Companies such as Uber, Waymo, Tesla and Toyota all have autonomous test vehicles on roadways in places like Phoenix, Pittsburgh and Boston. Though Americans already had concerns about the safety of driverless cars, a recent fatal accident by a self-driving Uber vehicle has many questioning if these cars will ever really be road-ready.

Fortunately, the answer is yes. Autonomous cars will become a reality, but it won’t happen until 5G data networks are ubiquitous. The current 4G network is fast enough for us to share status updates or request rides, but it doesn’t have the capability to give cars the human-like reflexes that might have prevented the Uber accident.

Self-driving vehicles are just one of the incredible technologies that will be unlocked by 5G. Virtual reality, smart cities and artificial intelligence all sit on the cusp of major breakthroughs—they just need the data network to catch up.

Evolution of the networks

The wireless data network has advanced pretty steadily over the past 30 years and some life-changing technologies have been hot on its heels. The modern evolution began in the early ‘80s with the introduction of the first-generation analog cellular system. Though cell phones were still pretty rare, people could finally talk to each other on the go.

By the early ‘90s, second-generation and 2.5G mobile systems enabled people to send text, but it wasn’t until the start of the new millennium that people had access to broadband speed internet through 3G. Phones evolved from devices for making calls to a tool for multifaceted communication, entertainment, shopping and much more.

4G is the latest evolution and it offers enough bandwidth and speed to allow real-time information and location sharing. This evolvement enabled the sharing economy and helped give birth to companies like Uber and Lyft. However, it’s still not fast enough to support technologies that require the speed of human reflexes. That’s where 5G comes in.

What’s so great about 5G?

The fifth-generation wireless data evolution is what keeps many technologists up at night these days. It will be the most significant data network advancement to date. 5G promises to connect everything around us to a network that offers the speed, responsiveness and reach to unlock the full capabilities of technologies such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence and the internet of things. In addition to supplying the final piece in the puzzle for self-driving cars, 5G will enable real-time participation in live concerts and gaming. Your phone will become a supercomputer with instinctive, high-bandwidth connection.

When it comes to autonomous vehicles, the speeds and data processing capabilities needed to mimic the timing of human reflexes are incredible. Dr. Joy Laskar, co-founder and CTO of Maja Systems, believes the future self-driving car will generate approximately two petabits of data—the equivalent of two-million gigabits.

To put this in perspective, Laskar says, “with an advanced Wi-Fi connection, it will take 230 days to transfer a weeks-worth of data from a self-driving car and that is why we need much faster ASIC processing technology and products.”

Major semiconductor companies, like Intel and Qualcomm, are close to an ASICs breakthrough that will combine large, available bandwidth at 5G frequencies with innovative new digital radio and antenna architectures. More simply put, they are  creating chips that will turn cars into data centers on wheels, thus enabling self-driving cars to make in-situ, complex, real-time decisions.

Facebook is also in on the race to launch 5G. It recently acquired Inovi Inc., a stealth startup focused on wireless broadband. Facebook used the company to pioneer one of the first and largest trails of 5G network in San Jose. The company is also collaborating with more than 450 telecom stakeholders, such as Broadcom, Intel, Telefonica and Juniper Networks, in a partnership called the Telecom Infra Project. Launched in February 2016, the goal of TIP started with accelerating the pace of innovation and launching 5G to more people around the globe faster.

With so many stakeholders in the game, I predict 5G network will be rolled out to the masses in 2-5 years. For entrepreneurs working on autonomous car technology or other technologies that require 5G capabilities, I say keep on pushing forward.

For those worried about driverless cars on the road, think about how your phone has changed over the past 10 years. At one point, you probably couldn’t imagine using it for more than placing a call. Today, you probably can’t imagine getting through the day without the ability to text, shop, connect with friends and order your ride home from work. Each evolution of the data network has brought amazing advancements to society. 5G promises to bring the most breakthroughs yet.

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