Connectivity Roadblocks Facing Self-Driving Cars

Our televisions have been advertising the introduction of self-driving cars for a couple years now by way of the self-parking car. When I first saw this new feature, I wasn’t too surprised. It was inevitable that technological advancements would eventually allow our cars to sense the shape and size of parking spots, navigating even the toughest parallel parking spaces. However, a new “hands-off” driving movement is in motion, and it won’t be stopping anytime soon. In fact, the autonomous vehicle industry is set to ramp up significantly over the next decade, but not without the help of a new 5G network and the telecommunications industry. Automotive industry experts predict that up to 15% of new vehicles sold in the year 2030 could be fully autonomous, but still many obstacles stand in the way.

An autonomous car is defined as a vehicle that can sense its environment and navigate that environment without any human input. For these futuristic automobiles to safely navigate our roadways, they will need to seamlessly and rapidly communicate with one other. The new 5G mobile data connectivity network being constructed today will be a key player in autonomous vehicles roaming the roadways. 5G will run on new higher frequency than the current 4G network. The new high-spectrum band will also have much less traffic than our current 4G network. Although our connection speeds will be increased with 5G, it is the decrease in latency that makes the goal of autonomous roadways tangible. Latency can be loosely described as thought time and small delays in a network’s speed. The current 4G network is considered to have low-latency at 40-60ms. The new 5G network is expected to reduce latency from 40-60ms to 1-10ms. This decrease will allow for real-time responsiveness in our nation’s network, a characteristic that will be necessary for driver-less car communication. After all, would you feel comfortable riding passenger in a fully automated vehicle that had to stop and think before avoiding a potential collision?

When 5G rolls out, the United States will have access to a high-speed, low-latency network that will make real-time responsiveness in autonomous cars possible, but building the network is only part of the challenge the telecommunication industry is facing. The digital universe, where all the world’s data lives, is growing at an exponential rate with an increasing number of people and business using the internet to accomplish anything and everything. Not only is the number of users increasing, but the number of smart devices per capita is rising as well. The digital universe more than doubles every two years, and it is predicted that the data we create each year will rise to 44 trillion GBs by 2020. Undoubtedly factored into these projections is the fact that self-driving vehicles could soon create substantially more data than humans. According to research done by Intel, each fully autonomous vehicle could create upwards of 4,000 GB of data per day! It is up to the telecommunications industry to keep up with the steep increase of data usage.

Now picture a self-driving car cruising along the picturesque cliffs of the Pacific Coast Highway in California. The 5G network is allowing the vehicle to communicate with other connected cars and analyze the upcoming roadways when suddenly you hit a gap in coverage. Would you really feel comfortable with your car switching from the high-speed network to a lower speed connection all while twisting and turning around the windy roads just feet from a huge drop off to the Pacific Ocean? Probably not! Even if our country is 98% covered with the new 5G network, there is still that 2% that will struggle to provide reliable enough connections to feel comfortable in a self-driving car. The growth of small cell and macro sites will be a driving factor in the advancement of connected roadways.

Is the world ready for fully autonomous vehicles to dominate the roadways? A poll performed by AAA in 2017 found that 78% of those surveyed fear traveling in a self-driving car. That number hasn’t changed at all since last year’s poll. However, 59% of people were recorded stating that they would like some autonomous features in their next vehicle. As interest and exposure to this automotive revolution grows, people should begin to feel more comfortable with the thought of relaxing behind the dashboard of self-driving car.

So while the fear and challenges of achieving a world filled with fully autonomous vehicles certainly exist, some of the word's greatest technicians are in the driver's seat, working to clear the way. 

About James Marooney

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James Marooney, EIT, is a Project Manager for the Telecommunications Division in Washington, D.C. at Foresite Group. He graduated from University of Maryland with his Bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering and a minor in Project Management. James enjoys working with a communicative team in order to get the job done on time. He has a special interest in working with a variety of carriers, especially learning how each carrier implements their systems and methods to complete a job.