Autonomous vehicles need well-marked streets more than 5G

There are many use cases for 5G and connected cars, but it’s not so important in the short term.
Written by Veronica Combs, Senior Writer

Augustin K. Wegscheider, a partner at BCG and head of the Center for Mobility Innovation, said that 5G is a nice-to-have, but not a must-have for autonomous vehicles (AVs). The best thing cities can do to prepare for AVs, he argues, is much lower tech than 5G.

Shared, autonomous, electric vehicles could reduce pollution, reduce car accidents, and save lives. These cars can do the most good when connected with other cars, traffic lights, and even pedestrians. The missing element is the communications network that allows for all that data sharing.

For vehicles to communicate with everything (V2X), cities could use a wi-fi standard (Dedicated Short Range Communications, or DSRC) or a 5G standard (Cellular V2X, or CV2X). CV2X has lower latency and more range, but the wi-fi tech is mature and ready for deployment now. Only about 30 cities in the US have 5G coverage, and it's mostly for the consumer market.

In 2018, China picked 5G as the standard for connected cars and dedicated bandwidth specifically for connected cars. CV2X seems to be winning out as the preferred standard in the US, despite the US Department of Transportation declining to set a communications standard. The 5G Automotive Association is pushing for 5G and has more than 100 members including Ford Motor, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Volkswagen, AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Ericsson, Huawei, Intel, Nokia, and Qualcomm Incorporated.  

In an interview with Scientific American, Sherif Marakby, CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles, said that a 5G network would make it easier for AVs to process the huge volumes of data required to operate, which can be up to 25GB per hour. He also said that cities couldn't build those networks alone.

Why paint is more important than 5G

Autonomous vehicle companies are testing cars in several cities, including Austin, Boston, Phoenix, Detroit, Kirland, WA, Miami, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. Wegscheider said that BCG worked with Boston to develop the transportation elements of the city's 2030 plan. Several companies are developing AV technology in Boston, including NuTonomy (now Aptiv), an MIT spin-off company that makes software to build self-driving cars, and Optimus Ride, another company that started at MIT and is developing self-driving vehicle systems.

City leaders want to know what kind of communications infrastructure is necessary and would not be outdated in five years. 

"The most financially savvy answer is, don't do anything," Wegscheider said.

Wegscheider said that the best infrastructure investment cities can make is in paint.

"These cars use Lidar, radar, and cameras to navigate, so we can make what they see easier to understand -- like color-coding the curb to show where drop off and pick up are allowed," he said.

Other low-tech tools could help AV rollouts and city budgets. At a CES 2020 session on mobility, Via CFO Clara Fain said cities' leaders should monetize one of their best assets -- roads -- to generate funding for tech investments. Wegscheider agreed with this strategy.

"From an economical and rational decision-making standpoint, you should price road usage because the city has the asset, and the utilization is becoming the problem," Wegscheider said.

When setting fees, Wegscheider said that cities should consider who is in the car and what is the purpose of the trip. Fees should be lower for vehicles delivering mail or food, and for vehicles carrying several people.

"The more granularly you differentiate the charges, the bigger the impact to affect change," he said.

European cities have had congestion pricing for several years, and New York will start charging drivers to enter Manhattan from 60th Street south in 2021. Wegscheider said that type of fee doesn't reduce congestion, it just raises revenue.

Kansas City just made public transportation free, a change other cities are considering to encourage people to take mass transit instead of driving personal cars or using ride hailing services. 

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