Connected Cars: The Next Frontier in Wireless Networking

2018 has truly been the year of connected cars. Car brands, mobile operators and equipment manufacturers are all teaming up to develop their own solutions. Only last month, Kia and Hyundai announced plans to launch their own connected vehicle services with Vodafone. And this won’t stop anytime soon – the market is set to be valued at over $150 billion by 2022.

But there is nothing simple about ensuring reliable internet access at 160mph. And increasing demand for multi-gigabit connectivity on high-speed transport is exacerbating the challenge. New 5G technologies could provide the answer.

In March, the UK Government awarded £4.1 million to the AutoAir 5G Testbed project to trial the use of 5G in Connected Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs). Led by Airspan Networks, the AutoAir consortium includes network technology experts Blu Wireless, DenseAir, 5GIC, Quortus and Realwireless, as well as Arm and McLaren.

We spoke with Airspan’s AutoAir Project Director, Peter Claydon, and Blu Wireless CMO, Mark Barrett, about the testbed’s potential.

What is the aim of AutoAir and which technologies are being trialled?

Mark: The goal of the consortium’s work is to deliver a range of 5G wireless technologies and services for Vehicle to Infrastructure applications (V2I).

Peter: Various automotive use cases are being demonstrated and evaluated. The technologies being used include hyper-dense, neutral host small cell networks in sub-6GHz spectrum, 70GHz wireless backhaul and access to fast moving vehicles using 60GHz wireless.

We will be demonstrating 1Gbps access to vehicles travelling at up to 160mph, with high-speed cars provided by McLaren.

What are Blu Wireless and Airspan bringing to the project in terms of their technical expertise?

Peter: Airspan brings expertise in LTE, 5G New Radio technology and small cell networks. One of the objectives of AutoAir is to examine the economics of a neutral host network in a real-world situation.

A neutral host network is a wholesale network that anyone can rent capacity on. For example, a neutral host operator, like Airspan subsidiary Dense Air, would deploy one network along a railway line and all four mobile network operators, the train operator and others could share it.

Mark: Using the mmWave spectrum, Blu Wireless is contributing a network of 24-60GHz gigabit nodes to create a V2I network around the high-speed test track at Millbrook. We are also extending a sub-set of our 24-60GHz gigabit nodes to operate in the 66-71GHz band, recently identified by Ofcom as having “significant potential” for transport applications.

Peter: Blu Wireless is the only mmWave wireless provider using the 66-71GHz band for backhaul, which is important for the AutoAir project. Some others are using the 57-65GHz band, but the higher band has significant advantages. The peak of atmospheric oxygen absorption is around 60 GHz, which means that these higher frequencies can potentially double the range.

What impact will these technologies have on connected cars deployment?

Mark: Gigabit-grade V2I technology will enable us to relay high-quality video (4k resolution or higher) data in real time from vehicle to trackside.

Another interesting application which will revolutionise public transport connectivity is the backhaul of multiple internet user sessions from passengers on a bus or train to trackside. Ofcom expressed support for this application in a recent report, which stated that 1Gbps per train by 2025 is the baseline requirement to deliver such wireless services for passengers.

What will the implication be for autonomous vehicles?

Peter: A significant challenge relating to connectivity of autonomous vehicles has nothing to do with being autonomous but is down to the amount of data customers are using. Having a single tower that’s capable of delivering 1Gbps of data sounds good, but if each vehicle consumes 100Mbps, that’s only ten vehicles.

The answer is a hyper-dense network, with small cells every few hundred metres along roads and railways rather than single large towers every few kilometres; these small cell networks are being trialled at AutoAir.

Another issue is reliability. If wireless networks are used for any applications involving safety, then reliability is very important. This can be achieved by ensuring that vehicles are always within range of more than one basestation and that the signal strength is consistently good.

What does the future hold for AutoAir and beyond?

Peter: AutoAir will certainly have a big impact on the development of connected car technology and probably in ways that we haven’t yet thought of.

At the end of the one-year project, we will leave a network that can be operated commercially to develop autonomous vehicles. This will be a unique facility enabling continued innovation in vehicle development and testing.

Mark: AutoAir will play a key role in promoting the merits of mmWave technology for V2I applications. We are working on the first commercial deployments for transport V2I applications, starting in late 2019. From 2024 and beyond I believe we will start to see widescale adoption of mmWave technology for V2I applications in connected cars.