The UK government’s announcement earlier in the year that all mobile network operators need to remove all Huawei technology from their operations by 2027 caused quite a stir amongst the tech industry. For the Connected and Automated Mobility industry it cast a light on self-driving vehicle testing facilities which offer 5G connectivity to their customers and whether it would affect them.
While this could have been bad news for the UK’s network of test beds, the discussions ended-up highlighting that locations like Millbrook and Midlands Future Mobility run and are developing ‘neutral host’ networks. Apart from not using Huawei technology at all, this also means that any self-driving technology developer can work with the network operator of their choice at either testing facility.
As an example, Millbrook Proving Ground uses independent 5G-enabled infrastructure, which is based on both 4G and 5G small cells that operate on a ‘neutral host’ basis. The infrastructure can simultaneously be used by multiple public and private mobile operators, allowing the network to be used more of the time, making its operation more economical and allowing technological development on multiple fronts simultaneously. Midlands Future Mobility’s central Birmingham network, under development with the Wireless Infrastructure Group, will offer neutral host connectivity in the middle of the UK’s second largest city.
To ensure technology developers are not locked out of testing facilities due to the file format they chose when they started, test beds need to remain open to supporting all file types, whilst seeking to maintain interoperability, allowing a seamless customer journey between facilities
The flexibility offered by a neutral host network is crucial for the validation and testing of autonomous vehicles, which require high speed and real-time connectivity. Indeed, 5G enables rich data sets like complex maps to be shared in real-time, as well as real-time remote vehicle operation from anywhere in the world. Most importantly, it allows for safety information to be shared almost instantly with nearby vehicles and infrastructure. In short the independent and neutral infrastructure used in the UK shows that the benefits of supporting sharing and open standards in technology go way beyond simply complying with changing regulations.
The benefits of network-neutral 5G infrastructures
This open approach to 5G showcases the importance of flexibility and interoperability for smaller companies in the self-driving space. If test beds only supported one network operator, broader partnerships and the ability to confidentially support competitor affiliated technology developers would be impossible, locking potential customers out from using those facilities.
This open mindset is important as self-driving vehicles show the potential to improve mobility for all sectors of society. We have seen the possibility for self-driving vehicles to provide safe transportation for more vulnerable citizens, especially during pandemics, and as self-driving vehicles will eventually be used to transport goods as well as enabling better mobility for people, this open approach avoids potential loss in these kinds of scenarios with competing interests, which would be felt across the country.
Beyond just network neutral 5G, supporting open-access infrastructure opens the possibility to develop a healthy balance between supporting competition, but managing it in a way that doesn’t stifle innovation
Partnerships might be the key word here. Beyond just network neutral 5G, supporting open-access infrastructure opens the possibility to develop a healthy balance between supporting competition, but managing it in a way that doesn’t stifle innovation. This is where the greater benefits of open-access and open-source technology can be seen: creating the opportunity for better innovation and for partnerships that will work towards a common good and bring about social benefits.
Open-access or open-source technology isn’t limited to the telecoms space either. One of the early choices Tesla made was to ensure the battery technology it was developing was open source. True to the company’s stated aim to make sustainable, zero-tailpipe emission vehicles available to as many people as possible, it allows other companies to benefit from its R&D and develop battery electric vehicles (BEVs) more quickly as a result. For example, Tesla has done a lot to advance the adoption of BEVs globally, but a perhaps unintended effect of this move has been the burgeoning cottage industry which is modifying beloved vintage cars and installing electric drivetrains. From Electric Classic Cars, which worked with Barbour to create an EV Land Rover Defender, to EV West, which has set a new electric land speed record, these companies have been able to grow quickly by utilising Tesla batteries and motors, and tweaking their open-source software to fit their needs.
Beyond connectivity: how open source will define the CAM industry
Back in the CAM space, many players are working with the self-driving industry to understand the mapping and geospatial needs of self-driving vehicle systems. There are a number of different mapping data formats and standards currently in use, and which standard will become widely adopted is yet to be seen. Mapping data is crucial in both simulation and real-world testing scenarios. To ensure technology developers are not locked out of testing facilities due to the file format they chose when they started, test beds need to remain open to supporting all file types, whilst seeking to maintain interoperability, allowing a seamless customer journey between facilities.
Similarly with V2V communication technologies, Volkswagen and Ford have both recently started selling cars with such capabilities, but each automaker uses a different technology. Both will have been put through their paces at testing facilities, and at this early stage of development, flexibility is a necessity on the path to creating standardisation.
The case for open-source and interoperability is clear enough: if we want to see self-driving vehicles on our roads in the near future, the technology that underpins them will have to become neutral and available to use freely. And self-driving vehicles will be needed on the roads if we want to build a more inclusive, fairer society that takes into account the needs of all citizens, while offering a sustainable form of transportation that will provide an answer to the main societal challenges we currently face.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Automotive World Ltd.
Daniel Ruiz is Chief Executive of Zenzic
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