When it comes to telecoms infrastructure, 5G has been the subject of more controversy than is typical. Some conspiracy theorists blame it for spreading coronavirus, while others accuse it of killing birds and plant life. Although there is no evidence for this, the fact that the ideas gained traction in the first place speaks to the need for greater understanding of the technology, its purpose and potential.
Amid the pandemic, the boom in remote working has meant that millions are now better acquainted with the state of telecommunications infrastructure. Current 3G and 4G networks slow down when multiple users make a video call, send large files, stream video, or play games simultaneously. 5G, meanwhile, represents a great leap forward in connectivity. The fast and reliable dataflows it provides can support self-driving cars, smart cities, and fully connected streets and vehicles.
As we explain in our report ‘Future of Telcos: winning the client experience battle’, a move to 5G is not just a change in degree, it is also change in kind. “It will enable extremely low latency - the gaps in time between the signal being sent and received,” explains Julien Huvé, Head of Telecommunications Services, Mazars. “5G will make perfectly synchronised online collaboration easier, opening up opportunities for live music, theatre, or any medium where performers in different locations need to work together in a precise way.” It also offers the prospect of improved connection density, which is essential for the development of Internet of Things (IoT) services - in which embedded sensors and transmitters allow objects to communicate with one another. It will also provide improved data transfer security.
Connected vehicles – cleaner, safer self-driving
Once 5G is fully operational the connected vehicle market is likely to be one of the most promising IoT growth areas, offering outsize opportunities for mobile operators, automotive manufacturers, and associated technology companies. Some 500 million connected cars will be on the road by 2025, according to Ericsson, and connected vehicle services are likely to be worth tens of billions of dollars by 2030.
This could make mobility more sustainable too. Bosch estimates that connected cars could avoid nearly 400,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions by 2025 – the equivalent of a year’s emissions from 45,000 homes – thanks mainly to efficiencies in fuel use from avoiding long parking space searches and fuel-inefficient habits. They could also make driving safer, preventing accidents and saving lives.
However, 5G’s most futuristic application is elsewhere. “5G is the technology necessary to start working on autonomous vehicles,” explains Huvé.
“One of the challenges of autonomous driving is that the car needs to perform many of the tasks currently done by the driver,” explains Grégory Derouet, Partner and Co-Head of Automotive Services, Mazars. Human drivers must constantly take into account a large amount of visual, auditory, and sensory information both about the road around them, such as street hazards and traffic, and the workings of the car, such as dashboard lights or the ‘feel’ of the gears. They need to be able to react in real time to a wide range of stimuli. Enabling a car to do all this at once requires a great deal of data to flow seamlessly and fast. “5G enables this large data flow, so that everybody and every system can communicate,” explains Derouet.
At present, these signals only need to flow between drivers and their surroundings. Autonomous vehicles will remove one node in the system - the driver - but replace it with many more. Data will flow between the car and the cars around it, as well as between the car and its wider environment. “If a car 100 metres ahead has an accident and the car behind it has to brake sharply,” explains Derouet, “these two cars will be able to communicate this to the others around it so that they can react accordingly. This requires data to flow instantly between many cars at once. But the reward is a much safer driving experience, and fewer accidents.” It will also enable data to flow easily between the car and street furniture such as IoT enabled traffic lights or roads.
All this, however, assumes a network able to handle this increased data load, which is precisely what 5G will provide.
Autonomous vehicles raise new public policy issues, such as who pays the insurance or is legally responsible if a self-driving car crashes. Widespread use of autonomous driving technology requires clarity on these and similar questions. 5G can help public authorities resolve these issues by making it easier to track data. This could help establish responsibility for issues as they arise, improving incident assessment and making it easier to establish legal liability.
How 5G can lighten mobility’s carbon footprint
5G could make broader mobility systems more sustainable too. At present, a person who wants to travel from A to B as sustainably as possible may not know precisely how to do so. It is normally safe to assume, for example, that a trip by bicycle is more carbon-efficient than an Uber, and a shared Uber is more efficient than driving alone. However, people do not generally consult genuine emissions data when combining many transport options for a trip across a city.
“5G will make it easier to efficiently mix different types of mobility, such as public transport and individual transport,” explains Huvé. “When data on each transport option and its emissions is always available, public, aggregated, and accessible, then individuals can make better informed choices. Many of these decisions will be made on the spur of the moment in areas where Wi-Fi is unlikely to be available, such as highways or country roads, so they will rely on a network that is able to instantly process the enhanced data load.”
Shared mobility services will likewise be easier to access when powered by 5G. “Recently we have seen shared electric bikes, cars, scooters and so on booming in certain cities,” says Derouet. “Ensuring that all these means of mobility safely and efficiently coexist is a challenge, but 5G offers exciting new possibilities.”
The promise of 5G-powered mobile devices opens up possibilities for plenty of other innovations too, says Huvé. “In the future we can expect to see enhanced health services and reality services. Who knows what prospects these will open up for mobility? In a few years, it will make existing services more fluid and allow us to enter a new era of mobility.”