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5G investment needs to scale up for AVs to reach full potential

Illustration: Sarah Grillo, Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Forthcoming 5G networks are expected to expedite advances in AV technology, but the infrastructural investment required has been estimated at $130 bilion–$150 billion — a significant hurdle that is holding AVs short of their potential and will likely require investment beyond wireless carriers.

The big picture: For AVs to be deployed, they'll need both onboard sensors to make their way through the environment and 5G to talk to one another. But until there's a greater commitment to the technology's rollout, AVs will be developed without the benefits 5G could offer.

Background: 5G networks are expected to bring down latency — the delay between when information is sent and received — to 1 millisecond, a rate 50 times faster than 4G.

Where it stands: Today, onboard sensors can only estimate the speed and direction of nearby vehicles. Like lidar, 5G communication could help to enable 360-degree vision — letting vehicles “see” and respond to other vehicles around blind turns and in poor visibility. But 5G will also provide precise information about other vehicles' location, speed and intent.

  • C-V2X (“cellular vehicle to everything”) via 5G connectivity is one way this could happen, enabling vehicles to communicate directly and more reliably, without going through a network.

Yes, but: 5G transmission runs out of steam faster than 4G, and in trials to date its range has been limited to 500–3,000 feet. As a result, 5G may require up to 400,000 antennas across the U.S., more than twice the number of cell towers needed to support 4G networks.

  • AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile all have plans to offer 5G service for cellphones in the first half of 2019, but a rollout sufficient to support AVs is still further off — likely in Europe first, as the 5G Automotive Association predicts, since its standards bodies are ahead of other regions.
  • New C-V2X chipsets, in development and being tested by Qualcomm and others, will be essential in supporting 5G connectivity in cars.

In the near term, AV availability may not be delayed, as there is plenty of work to do on other aspects of the technology. Early deployments will be small and highly controlled enough to operate without 5G or C-V2X.

What to watch: With 5G poised to expedite autonomous transportation, strategic investments will need to come from governments on infrastructure and from carriers and chipmakers on networks and technology, well in advance of significant revenue.

Raphael Gindrat is co-founder and CEO of Bestmile.