Long consigned to the realm of science fiction, so-called ‘driverless cars’ look set to enter the mainstream in the next few years.
The technologies could have come straight from Star Trek - cars will be able to navigate roads by using light beams to map the surroundings, while roads will be covered by sensors that can detect changes in surface conditions and traffic flow and will communicate this information back to the car.
The development of autonomous vehicles is the culmination of decades’ worth of research on a range of technologies falling under the umbrella of ‘Intelligent Transport Systems’.
Bringing them together - from simpler functions such as cruise control to the more advanced such as real-time road sensing and mapping - these intelligent systems can automate many vehicle functions.
They can also increase efficiencies in traffic flow, fuel consumption and improve road safety.
Although these systems can function without an internet connection, most of these technologies depend on communications with both the road network and other vehicles, sharing vast amounts of data.
A debate is currently ongoing in the European Council as to which technology should be used for short-range communications, with the choice being between Wi-Fi and a 5G-based cellular network.
However, the roll-out of 5G networks across Europe, which is now compulsory for all EU Member States, could circumvent this issue by providing long-range communications.
5G could offer internet speeds of over 100 gigabits a second - up to 200 times faster than 4G - opening the doors to a range of new technologies powered by hyper-connectivity.
According to Digital Europe’s Alberto Di Felice, the rollout of 5G would “allow for more advanced forms of connected autonomous vehicle functions as well as value-added, cloud-based services and more”.
Meanwhile, Joost Vantomme, Smart Mobility Director for vehicle manufacturers’ association ACEA, believes the investment in 5G technology “introduces new dynamics and opportunities that enable the digitalisation of the transport sector”.
“A pan-European network is needed to make the benefits of connected and automated driving widely available” Joost Vantomme, Smart Mobility Director at ACEA
He said that “automation and connectivity are complementary and will reinforce each other in the medium to long term”, adding that a big part of the €57.4bn that the automotive industry annually invests in R&D, is on connected and automated driving.
Furthermore, by enhancing the communication network, information can be collected and fed back to service providers to improve the transport network.
Insurance Europe’s Nicolas Jeanmart said, “Insights gleaned from driving behavioural data can be used in the development of new insurance products tailored to the profile of policyholders, such as driver feedback and coaching.”
“Greater automation of vehicles is expected to reduce - if not remove entirely - the human error element of driving, which is likely to mean fewer road accidents overall,” he added.
Today, the EU is the biggest experimental area for 5G technology in the world, but ACEA’s Vantomme believes that “a pan-European network is needed to make the benefits of connected and automated driving widely available” and would involve the roll-out of 5G infrastructure in transport-intensive areas such as motorways and cities.
The EU has already begun this process by launching 5G connected roads or corridors across Europe, where technologies and systems are being tested.
Furthermore, investments of more than €3bn have been earmarked, and last year the Commission produced its 5G Action Plan and observatory.
Nevertheless, while deployment remains uneven across Europe, seamlessly-connected autonomous driving across borders may take a little longer before the fantasy becomes reality.