Qualcomm is offering a glimpse at how the next generation of wireless service could lay the groundwork for a self-driving future.
Today, at the annual Consumer Electronics Show, the telecom chipmaker partnered with Ford, Audi and Ducati to outfit a sample route through downtown Las Vegas with 5G network equipment that connects cell-connected cars and motorcycles to real-time traffic information including pedestrian crossings, stoplight changes and speed limits.
While the cars used in the test weren’t autonomous, the demonstration is an example of the type of car-to-car and car-to-infrastructure communication technology experts say will eventually be critical for self-driving vehicles to operate on a mass scale. That type of high-stakes coordination is only possible when cell service is more or less instantaneous, as it’s expected to eventually be with 5G.
Ahead of the exhibition, Ford announced plans to outfit all of its new models with this cellular vehicle-to-everything communication technology, or C-V2X, by 2022. The automaker has also previously said all new vehicles will come equipped with basic cell reception by the end of this year.
C-V2X is often discussed by futurists in the context of driverless vehicles, and Maged Zaki, director of marketing for Qualcomm’s various automotive AI and 5G tech, said the initial iteration of the technology will provide important safety functions for drivers. For instance, broadcasting intentions between cars can make it easier to negotiate right of way at a four-way stop, or notice of an imminent light change can help avoid a sudden stop. Through cameras and intercar information sharing, a car could similarly warn of a speed limit change in a school zone, a pedestrian in a crosswalk or road conditions like accidents and construction zones.
Zaki said pushing out the technology to drivers first will help iron out kinks and address potential problems before it is applied to self-driving coordination, where mistakes could be much more costly.
“We are solving first the safety issue—which we can use for autonomous cars and nonautonomous cars—and then we are tweaking the technology in the future more to make it work specifically for autonomous car use cases,” Zaki said. “For that, we have to make the communication pipes faster and fatter and more reliable.”
Qualcomm had to collaborate with the city of Las Vegas and the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada to enable its technology to interface with public road infrastructure during the test. Once the technology is released more broadly, however, Zaki said the equipment will likely be integrated into the so-called small cells that carriers are already building on light poles, rooftops and other city structures to accommodate the short-range waves needed for 5G.
“If you are in downtown Manhattan, at almost every single intersection, you’ll have a small cell,” Zaki said. “That small cell is sitting there and doing all the communication from the network. So from an economical standpoint, it makes sense to add a little module for C-V2X to add a little functionality to the small cell.”