5G service is coming to more cars. What can drivers expect – and when?
After years of innovation in the world of smartphones, PCs, and tablets, there is a new tech gadget leader: the car. In fact, key chip companies that have powered those devices for years – including Nvidia, Qualcomm, and Intel’s Mobileye division – are now putting some of their most advanced technology efforts towards the automotive market, announcing car maker partnerships at a dizzying rate.
Cellular connectivity has also been an important driver in the evolution of cars for many years now, having been used to deliver everything from map updates to emergency services to over-the-air car feature updates. (This is a fact that owners of some older cars may have only recently painfully discovered when AT&T recently shutdown its 3G networks. T-Mobile and Verizon are soon to follow on that front.)
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Not surprisingly, the latest innovation in cellular technologies, 5G, has also now made its way into the automotive market. Last week, BMW launched the first 5G-equipped car –the 2022 BMW iX xDrive50, powered by T-Mobile’s new Magenta Drive service. The $20/month service provides high-speed connectivity to the car, both for calls and data services. In addition, it powers an internal Wi-Fi hotspot that can support up to 10 devices in and around the car.
But what 5G technology won’t do is enable autonomous driving features. Despite numerous suggestions of this possibility in the build-up to the launch and early deployment of 5G networks, it is not practical (or safe) to expect a cellular connection to control the operation of a car on a regular basis – regardless of the carmaker or wireless carrier.
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As we’ve all experienced on our smartphones, sometimes you just lose a connection – even in places that seem like they ought to have consistent wireless service. On a phone call, a dropped connection can be annoying, but in a fast-moving automobile, it could literally mean life and death. That’s why all autonomous cars are being designed and built to operate completely on their own, whether they have a cellular connection or not. In fact, they all have built-in redundancy designed around the concept of functional safety in their digital systems to ensure that even if one of the main processors controlling the autonomous system fails for some reason, another can immediately take over.
To be certain, having a 5G (or 4G) connection can help the process of autonomous and assisted driving by doing things such as providing information about nearby vehicles (sometimes called Vehicle-to-Vehicle, or V2V communications), as well as data from things like stoplights, road signs, and more (Vehicle-to-Infrastructure, or V2X).
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Plus, we’ve seen a number of car and tech companies talking about capabilities like real-time map updates being delivered via 5G. However, this data is all supplemental to the operation of the car and not fundamental to its ability to function. Plus, we’re still several years away from having the standardization of these car-to-car or car-to-infrastructure signals. So, while it’s something we can definitely look forward to, it’s not anything you should expect anytime soon.
That doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t real value in integrating 5G into the car. For example, in our increasingly connected world, streaming entertainment services like Spotify, Netflix, and more have become expected in all the environments in which we find ourselves. Integrated support for them in our vehicles, then, makes absolute sense.
Similarly, the ability to have access to and share high-speed connectivity for any of our devices, including WiFi-equipped PCs and other devices, is also an attractive option. Finally, as carmakers continue along the path of software-defined cars, that can have new capabilities, services, and even maintenance updates delivered to them anywhere via over-the-air updates, having a high-speed 5G connection built directly into your car is a logical step forward.
During the pandemic, people became very accustomed to having high-speed Internet access for all their devices, and as we start to travel more, that need for high-speed access wherever people go will grow. In that light, T-Mobile’s claim to offer 5G coverage on 92% of interstate highway miles across the U.S. makes the notion of a connected car more appealing than it may first appear.
While we certainly haven’t reached the age of fully autonomous cars, there is no question that car technology is making important progress. Given developments like the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) approving the production and usage of cars that don’t have traditional steering wheels or pedals in certain environments, there are tantalizing hints of much more to come.
As is the case with many technology developments, it’s important to keep unrealistic expectations in check, but it’s still exciting to think about what can happen next.
Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. His clients are major technology firms including Amazon, Microsoft, HP, Dell, Samsung and Intel. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.