Are 5G smart roads the future of transport?

Finland, for so long a hotbed of technical innovation and telecoms creativity, already has an operating smart road. The Aurora public tests ecosystem was established in 2017 when a 10km stretch of Route 21 in the Arctic north of the country was equipped with sensors. The smart road has helped drivers to tackle issues including freezing fog and extreme temperatures, according to Raconteur.

“The 5G road is a concept not far off from being a reality,” says Mohsen Mohseninia, vice president of market development at internet of things solutions provider Aeris.

China and Finland are on track to have functioning smart highways within the next few years, he says, and the UK government is now prioritizing the rollout of 5G services.

In May, Switzerland launched its 5G network, mainly covering urban areas, while the European Union’s 5G Action Plan for Europe details how one major city in every member state will have 5G by 2020, with all major road networks covered by 2025.

5G is all about lower latency – the lag experienced by signals travelling over the internet – speeds that are hundreds of times faster and greater reliability. “It provides the capability to connect lots of things all at once,” says Peter Claydon, project director at pioneering 5G initiative AutoAir.

Most of the data in the current mobile network is termed the “downlink”, he explains. “It’s information that’s going from somewhere else in the world to the vehicle. With 5G there’s the capability to send a lot more information from the vehicle back to transport authorities and car manufacturers,” says Mr Claydon.

What the 5G smart road could do for transport

While 5G roads won’t look drastically different, they will fundamentally change the way we think about transport networks, says Dr Mohseninia. “At the heart of the 5G smart road is data that is transmitted both with speed and volume, through millions of datapoints that speak to each other,” he says.

“5G roads will have large number of sensors and smart devices which, when combined, will enable real-time interaction between the infrastructure and the vehicles that use it.”

What 5G roads will do for autonomous vehicles

But network connectivity is not just about high speeds; it is also about reliable coverage that won’t drop out, a crucial factor when it comes to the future development of autonomous vehicles.

“The big thing that will come with 5G is the possibility to actually rely on that connectivity,” says Maxime Flament, chief technology officer at 5G Automotive Association, an organisation that brings together the telecommunications and automotive industries, with partners including Audi, Nokia and Huawei.

For instance, he says, today you can only inform drivers. They receive information from the cloud about speed restrictions or weather conditions and eventually it is displayed on the dashboard; that’s the limit of 4G connectivity.

The next step could see the driver engage automated mode. “Perhaps a pop-up on the dashboard could alert the driver that for the next 100km or so there is strong coverage and an external service provider that can take care of the car,” he explains. In essence, for the cost of a few pounds, the driver can sit back, while the car is controlled by a remote operator.

“Ultimately, all this data means there will also be improvements in vehicle positioning information, which will enable much closer clustering of autonomous vehicles,” says Mr  Matthews. “This will mean better use of road space, reductions in congestion and improvements in vehicle energy consumption.” The platooning of road freight, when a series of lorries autonomously follow a lead vehicle, could also increase, he says.

Although truly autonomous vehicles on the UK’s roads may still be some way off, says Mr Claydon, all this data and connectivity will help overcome one of the biggest hurdles to autonomous cars which is public trust. It will give people confidence that even if a he says.