The auto industry’s first uses for connected-car technology have revolved around high-definition entertainment and, in a few cases, software updates that enhance vehicle performance.
Next up: a full embrace of 5G technology, which will likely upend business, enable automated vehicles, and perhaps save lives. Over the past five years, the 5G Automotive Association has worked to usher in that era. Swedish technology giant Ericsson was a founding member of that organization, which now includes more than 130 companies.
Magnus Gunnarsson, head of connected vehicle product management at Ericsson, has been working on transforming 5G’s automotive potential into reality since 2016.
He spoke with Deputy Mobility Editor Pete Bigelow about Ericsson’s work with automotive partners and 5G’s broad potential. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: What’s the big deal with the transition from 4G to 5G? Can you set the stage for what it means in the auto industry?
A: Basically, the fourth generation of mobile networks that have become commonplace around the world, that work has been predominantly for person-to-person or place-to-place use cases. In essence, it’s individuals communicating with individuals or the Internet. With the advance and introduction of 5G, this has changed. We are now very much discussing and building the architecture and technology for [Internet of Things] use cases — devices communicating with other devices or the cloud. This is why Ericsson is specifically interested in the automotive space. There is no other IoT use case that has the same type of magnitude and complexity as automotive.
Q: I understand the importance of 5G in putting fully autonomous cars on the road. What is the role of 5G in driver-assistance functions?
A: Cars are likely going to have steering wheels for a long time, and they might be self-driving in certain environments, like on highways. In order to make that happen, cars need computing power, whether they’re connected or not. At the same time, they’ll have to rely on beyond line-of-sight information, and have a much higher frequency of updates. We’re discussing this with OEMs we’re working with. They are now considering that they typically only do over-the-air updates when the car is standing still, but they are now contemplating updates in small patches, specifically within navigation and sensors, while the car is in operation.
Q: Who are you working with on the automotive front?
A: Our launch customer and the one driving our development from an automotive perspective has been Volvo Cars. We’ve been connecting with them almost all over the world since 2013.
Q: Maybe this is a basic question, but how fast does 5G need to be to deliver the performance needed in a world where safety is critical?
A: That’s a good question, and when we’re looking at speed, it’s important to say there are two types of speed. First, we have the data transmission, how many gigabytes can be transferred within a certain time frame. A massive amount of data. But there’s another type of speed — not a massive amount of data, but very low latency, so we can get information into the car when calling upon the cloud. That is something happening in our engagement with different automakers. They are designing their next generation of vehicles for very low latency networks. It has implications for companies like Ericsson, but also on cloud providers, who need to deploy in more dense locations. Typically we use “edge computing” when we’re discussing this, but it has many different parts, and 5G is one part.
Q: As we speak, infrastructure measures are being considered in Congress. Would they help enable the 5G future you are discussing?
A: You can no longer look at infrastructure as only bridges and roads, and this roadside infrastructure that’s been around for 100 years. You need to consider that the next generation of highways is becoming digitized, and 5G is absolutely part of that mix.
Q: We talked about driving-assist systems and automated vehicles. In what other ways will 5G infrastructure make things safer for pedestrians or the overall traffic ecosystem?
A: The beautiful thing with this type of [Intelligent Transportation System] technology or its use cases is that you don’t need to have the latest car, because you can send the same type of signal to a handset where people get the same types of benefits as an automated driver or the person behind the wheel. You can make fatality reductions across the world. That will start in the developed world, but it will trickle down, just like we’ve seen with other safety technologies like airbags or ABS. This will have a tremendous effect on road safety. In this case, it’s connected rather than just built into the car.