You might not realize it, but many modern vehicles on the road today are essentially computers on wheels.
From multiple sensors to reduce emissions, to automated safety features and performance enhancements, roughly 50 different computer systems all help manage what’s going on under the hood and in the cabin. No wonder computer chip makers and software companies are setting their sights on powering tomorrow’s vehicles.
And just like any computer, it works best when it can communicate with other machines, which is why the latest in cellular technology, called 5G, is making its way to vehicles.
Prevalent in major cities across Canada, 5G is already available on many of today’s smartphones, such as the iPhone 13, Samsung Galaxy S22 and Google Pixel 6. Some laptops and tablets support 5G, too, as well as portable “hotspot” devices for internet access in homes and cottages.
This fifth-generation cellular technology offers several advantages over the last generation of 4G LTE. This includes much faster data speeds, lower latency (the time required for data to travel between two points) and higher connection density (how many devices the network can support at one time in a geographic area).
“5G is the next evolution for connectivity across a multitude of devices and not just mobile phones,” said Kristin Kolodge, vice president of auto benchmarking and mobility development at J.D. Power. “Just like it reduces lag or latency when you’re searching for or downloading content, or perhaps video chatting, these benefits will help enable new kinds of connections in vehicles, too, or significantly enhance services we have today.”
Drivers and passengers in a 5G-enabled vehicle will be able to quickly connect to various online services – for information, entertainment, navigation and communication – but it will also allow fast over-the-air updates to the vehicle’s various computer systems.
Just like Apple, Android and Microsoft push updates to phones, tablets and laptops, car owners will be able to benefit from new features and software “patches” to fix issues. 5G also helps facilitate a faster and more reliable connection between a driver and their vehicle, even when they are not inside of it, such as accessing the car’s systems remotely on a companion app.
“5G networks’ near instant response times and capacity to connect millions of devices means vehicles will be connected in a technology ecosystem like never before,” said Neel Dayal, senior director of innovation and partnerships for Rogers Communications.
Dayal said Rogers partnered with the Ontario Vehicle Innovation Network last month to launch a 5G Transportation Challenge
. “Right now, we’re encouraging mobility and transportation SMEs (small and midsize enterprises) to share how they might use the Rogers 5G network for automotive use cases, and winners will be invited to demonstrate and showcase their applications on site on the Rogers 5G-enabled testbed at the University of Waterloo later this year,” said Dayal.
In the long run, smart cars powered by 5G could communicate with several other devices, said Kolodge. “We’re going to start seeing things like vehicles connecting to infrastructure over 5G, such as a stoplight or a construction sign, or perhaps a construction worker wearing a vest that has a sensor in it that tells the driver of the car there is a work zone ahead.”
Kolodge said 5G could also enable vehicle-to-vehicle communication. “If a car drives across a patch of ice or a pothole in the road, it can communicate that to other vehicles in that vicinity,” said Kolodge.
In March, BMW launched the 2022 BMW iX xDrive50, the first 5G-equipped car in the U.S. It is supported by T-Mobile’s Magenta Drive, a $20 per month service that provides high-speed connectivity to the car, for both for calls and data services, and includes an internal Wi-Fi hotspot to connect up to 10 devices to the internet in or outside the vehicle.
In Canada, BMW’s first 5G vehicle will be the all-new 7 series, including the all-electric BMW i7, to go on sale in the country in the fourth quarter of this year.
“5G connectivity in this vehicle will open up a whole new level of user experience,” said Jonathan Thomson, national manager of product planning at BMW Canada. “Not only will software updates be completed much quicker, but in-vehicle entertainment will also reach new heights, (which) can be equipped with a 31-inch, 8K ultra-wide screen for second-row passengers that runs Amazon Fire TV.”
Thomson said the baseline focus for vehicle connectivity is over-the-air updates. “This allows our compatible vehicles, and their software, to remain as up-to-date and relevant as possible. This applies to system functionality upgrades, map updates, and so on.”
Other automakers, like General Motors, are also betting big on 5G. “As GM moves to 5G, the company will introduce a range of new convenience and entertainment features as well as new driver-assistance technologies,” said Natalie Nankil, director of product communications at General Motors Canada.
“These network improvements will be foundational for the future of GM’s growing over-the-air update strategy,” said Nankil, who confirmed the first GM vehicles with built-in connectivity to 5G are expected to be introduced in 2025. “With more advanced features, robust and secure software, and faster download speeds, more data per second is accessible to provide a more convenient and safe customer experience.”
When it comes to driverless cars, 5G could help augment other autonomous technologies, including radar and lidar sensors, and onboard cameras. J.D. Powers’ Kristin Kolodge said it will allow for both vehicle to vehicle and vehicle to infrastructure communication.
“This is essential for automated vehicles to understand what’s going on around it, whether it’s gathering and processing info from sensors or cameras, or from other devices across that connectivity band,” said Kolodge.
Rogers Communications’ Neel Dayal said 5G will help facilitate autonomous vehicles in the near future, “Including cars and taxis, but also autonomous public transportation systems, delivery systems and assisted driving for seniors and people with disabilities.
“Advanced sensors like cameras and lidar across vehicles and roads will help navigate by allowing cars to communicate with their environments and create more accurate maps,” said Dayal.