Connected cars: Paving a safer road to the future with 5G
The high speed and low latency of Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband are helping to bring a new generation of connected cars to life.
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The future of the automobile is often envisioned as autonomous cars whisking occupants from place to place safely and efficiently. In fact, some of these vehicles are already navigating the streets of cities such as Phoenix, where autonomous vehicles are giving rides to volunteer passengers as part of a years-long testing program. But while autonomous cars are just hitting the road, another technology is already making positive change. Soon, automobiles will be able to do more than provide navigation help. They'll be able to communicate with the cars and roads around them to improve driver and pedestrian safety.
The need is real. According to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA), more than 42,000 people died in automobile accidents in 2021—a 16-year high and a key factor behind several new federal safety programs.
The technology is real too, with automobile manufacturers now developing cellular vehicle-to-everything (CV2X) communications systems. The research and testing for these groundbreaking systems happens at places like The University of Michigan’s Mcity, an interdisciplinary public-private partnership that brings together private industry, government and research leaders to advance transportation safety.
At Mcity’s test facility for autonomous and connected vehicles, CV2X communications are enabled by the high speed and low latency of Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband, available in select areas around the country.
Welcome to the track
Think of Mcity’s testing environment—which simulates real-world roads and driving conditions—as the high-tech cousin of your average automotive testing ground. Rather than stress-testing engines, Mcity tests cars against future transportation and infrastructure systems. “Unlike a traditional proving ground that tests the bones and muscles of cars, we’re testing their brains,” says Greg McGuire, managing director of Mcity. “We mimic a real-world environment that people live and commute in, and test how connected cars’ systems perceive the world around them. That means using 5G systems, mobile edge computing (MEC) and other technologies to see how vehicles respond to curbs, intersections, bridges, tunnels, pedestrians and more. Mcity allows partners to run very precise, controlled and repeatable tests in a safe environment.”
Mcity’s test environment is a custom-built 32-acre proving ground (half of those acres are roads) with multiple road surfaces, on-ramps, roundabouts, intersections, driveways (as well as house and garage facades), streetlights and more, where mobility technologies can be tested and connected cars deployed for observation with an eye toward improving performance. An average morning at Mcity might see a prototype vehicle on the track to do sensor tests, seeing how rapidly the car responds when traffic lights are shifting from green to red. Or the exploration of systems that send near real-time data from vehicle to vehicle so that they can react and avoid crashes.
“What’s interesting to me about the work we do is how we’re not just thinking about ways to connect everyone’s smartphone to offer more safe and efficient transportation methods,” McGuire says. “We’re also looking at how to increase and leverage the intelligence of vehicles, roads and even entire cities to assist with everything from providing flood warnings to networking bridges and tunnels to offer traffic alerts on demand.”
The test facility operates at least 12 hours a day, seven days a week. On any given afternoon a visitor might see government and industry leaders coming through to participate in workshops or seminars and education programs on the future of transportation technology. It’s also common to see University of Michigan faculty members, doctoral candidates and researchers at the test facility working on projects under the direction of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Our connected car future
Much of the work on connected car technology focuses on how we manage information—both in the car and between cars—and how quickly data can be transmitted and processed so action can be taken. Connected cars are poised to fuel a transformation of global wireless data networks and drastically alter the shape of transportation; according to estimates by Deloitte, 470 million connected vehicles will be traversing global highways by 2025, each generating roughly 25 GB of data per hour. So how can carmakers and infrastructure developers make sure they can share and interpret the huge amounts of data that will be generated, and will be needed to create seamless and safe on-road experiences?
At Mcity, that performance is provided by Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband and MEC, which moves data processing away from distant data centers and closer to the network’s edge for faster response times and reduced latency. That helps analysis happen in near real time as data moves from and between cars, as well as from sensors and cameras installed in streets, traffic lights and elsewhere that receive and transmit information about the position of cars, traffic flow and congestion.
“Some of the biggest benefits will come in the ability to offload computing workloads from antiquated infrastructure devices and mobility equipment to more advanced systems capable of processing and sharing data in near real time,” McGuire says. “Think about traffic intersections: A great deal of crashes occur at them, but they’re currently powered by fairly rudimentary technology systems. We have the power to greatly and seamlessly improve safety and responsiveness at an affordable cost just by giving them a technological upgrade.”
Thinking about 5G communications, and MEC’s capabilities in particular, McGuire sees Mcity’s role as helping drive improvements in efficiency. “These gains will help us make vehicle fleets and delivery robots more capable, improve the accuracy of location tracking in ride-share apps and make mapping tools more effective when it comes to interpreting travel routes in near real time to improve trip fuel efficiency,” he says. “These may seem like small wins, but they can add up to huge cost and time savings. And with 5G technology, you can gain greater precision and performance that lead to deeper data insights.”
To date, Mcity has logged more than 9,000 hours of testing, and it continues to uncover fascinating glimpses of where this technology might lead. “The great improvements in speed, latency and bandwidth that 5G delivers are going to open up all sorts of new ideas for transportation,” McGuire says. “Including those we haven’t yet considered.”