Years ago, saying that improving telecommunication networks would improve road safety would attract some very strange looks — surely, this would mean that drivers are more distracted and less focused on the road? The situation these days, however, is quite different — 5G and road safety might just be the unlikeliest of friends.

One of the fastest-growing areas of technology

I recently attended an IP Seminar hosted by Volvo Cars, where connectivity and data were mentioned extensively. Connectivity in vehicles is one of the fastest-growing areas of technology. The proliferation of the 5G network will enable the realisation of technologies which are sure to improve road safety and lead to improved driving. That’s before we even see fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) on our roads.

Connectivity, data and autonomous driving

It’s clear that improving connectivity is key to the development of autonomous driving. The IEEE Spectrum publication recently stated that “Driverless cars will have incredibly sophisticated systems, including high performance computers and an increasing number of advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) sensors. Car manufacturers will be required to continuously increase bandwidths for both point-to-point data pipes and distributed network structures to meet new data demands.”

This fed into a recent report (generated using patent analytics software IPlytics) which highlighted the increasing interest of telecoms companies in autonomous driving standards. LG Electronics, Huawei and Samsung were identified as the top three contributors to AV driving standards while Huawei, LG Electronics and Intel were identified as the top three standard essential patent- (SEP) declaring companies relating to AV driving standards (we’ve previously discussed the increasing role of SEPs in relation to AVs and electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure, here).

Here’s a look at four key examples of technologies which will need to rely on improved connectivity to advance road and driver safety.

1. Geofencing-based speed limiters

Earlier this year, Volvo Cars announced that it’s looking at geofencing-based technology which could automatically limit the speed of a car around specific locations, such as schools and hospitals.

For this technology to be implemented, cars will need to be able to determine their location with high precision and without delay. The 5G network offers very low latency which, in an optimised part of the 5G spectrum, could be as low as 1 millisecond. This means that the vehicle will be able to determine that it’s within the vicinity of a target location in a very short space of time. The car will then essentially be able to automatically drop its speed without delay as soon as it enters the geofenced area. The current 4G network, as fast as it can be, offers nowhere near this level of latency.

2. Collision detection

One of the most important technologies in the proliferation of connected autonomous vehicles (CAVs) is collision detection.

This may sound trivial, as when a human being is driving, we can generally avoid collisions by being aware of other vehicles on the road and items of infrastructure which surround the road. However, an AV needs to be programmed to be able to determine the presence of other road vehicles.

CAVs need data relating to surrounding vehicles and surrounding infrastructure in order to determine the presence of those vehicles and items of infrastructure. This data needs to be refreshed at a very high rate, as the vehicles location could be changing at a rate of 70 miles per hour (approximately 0.195 miles per second) if driving on a motorway. The vehicle needs to know where other vehicles are so that it can adjust its speed and direction accordingly as, in theory, the driver will not be there to act. Similarly, CAVs need to communicate their location to other vehicles, so that they can act also accordingly.

It should be said that this need to know where other vehicles are isn’t limited to adjacent vehicles — it also includes vehicles on roads miles ahead, so that the AV can determine its route and any hazards which lie ahead.

Such high frequency data transmission requires telecommunication networks that can handle the ‘traffic’ (excuse the pun). The low latency telecommunications offered by the 5G network have been identified as key to the implementation of effective collision detection systems.

3. Remote pilots

We are many years from seeing AVs that can handle all road situations without driver input. For example, what if an AV is forced to handover to a driver if it struggles to a handle a situation such as a traffic jam, when the vehicle isn’t occupied by someone with a driving licence? This is where remote pilot technology would kick-in to rescue individuals stranded in potentially difficult situations on the road.

Remote pilot technology will enable a driver in a remote location to take control of the vehicle. However, for this to be safe, the communications need to enable the driver to control the vehicle as if they were physically sat in the driving seat. Again, the speed and low latency offered by 5G networks is key to the effective implementation of this technology.

4. ‘Invisible to Visible’ technology

Nissan has recently unveiled ‘Invisible to Visible’ (I2V) technology which seeks, plainly, to make visible to a driver what would typically be invisible. This works by generating visualisations of objects which the driver of a vehicle wouldn’t usually be able to see, then displaying the visualisations within the driving environment.

Among the visualisations which can be placed into the driver’s field of view are images representing upcoming obstacles or obstructions which are hidden from view — for example, an overturned vehicle in the road ahead. This enables the driver to act early, which is key in avoiding further incidents and optimising the route to be taken.

I2V technology has a clear appeal but relies on the communication of data which is up-to-date and relevant to the precise location of the vehicle. The low latency and high bandwidth offered by the 5G network can fulfil these requirements in a way which makes the technology effective. High latency could render the information irrelevant before it even reaches the vehicle, particularly when travelling at high speed.

Advice for 5G technology developers

The roll-out of the 5G network is key to numerous technologies which will improve driving in the short-term and accelerate the roll-out of fully autonomous vehicles in the long-term. Standards relating to autonomous driving are developing at pace and many of the large telecommunication technology companies are intent on taking a slice of the action. Data gathering, communication, processing and management are all important to the roll-out of AVs — not just when it comes to full autonomy, but even as we realise level 3 and level 4 autonomous driving. It’s without question that some of the large automotive manufacturers are also looking at the development of technology which relies on fast data communications.

If you’re developing technology in this space, it’s essential that you tread carefully. Patenting activity to date has been extensive and simply by deploying technology which relies on the 5G standard, you could be incurring large amounts of third-party patent infringement risk. This is before you consider your own IP portfolio.