Nothing seamless about 5G’s connectivity promise

Quectel is helping automotive integrators tap into the most advanced wireless connectivity available, but even that is far from perfect. By Megan Lampinen

Connected vehicle applications promise a wealth of safety and comfort related advances for drivers as well as more efficient multi-modal mobility and smarter cities. A wide range of ecosystem players are exploring the potential for vehicles that communicate with the internet, other vehicles and infrastructure. At the heart of this movement is wireless communications, the pinnacle of which is represented by the fifth-generation mobile network.

One company working to provide this pivotal connectivity to cellular networks is Quectel. The supplier works closely with automakers and Tier 1s to best position them and their offerings to harness the benefits of a connected world. Its latest automotive-grade modules provide multi-gigabit cloud connectivity, improved location services, and enhanced security to support an ever-growing list of requirements within connected car and self-driving applications. Quectel’s Manfred Lindacher, Vice President of Global Sales, Automotive International, anticipates rapid developments in both vehicle communication technology and the use cases it underpins.

What are some of the most promising use cases for connectivity within the mobility ecosystem?

There are several. One is over-the-air (OTA) update capability, which we already know from the smartphone. Vehicles are becoming increasingly software-based, and any software is subject to change in the future. OTA gives automakers the ability to keep the vehicle up to date without calling the car back to the garage regularly. Connectivity is also about safety, as we can see with the pan-European eCall initiative, ERA-GLONASS in Russia and similar applications in the US. At the same time, most automakers realise connectivity’s value in providing insight into how a car is used, which they can feed into development work for future models.

Considerable attention is currently directed at 5G, but what about 4G—can you highlight some of the more interesting applications capable with the fourth-generation network?

Most of the robotaxi prototypes today are not using the 5G network because it’s not rolled out on a global or countrywide basis. They are relying on 4G. The whole industry can learn quite a bit from these self-driving applications. This is where we are investing considerable energy to support several start-up companies with our modules.

Connected car
Vehicles are becoming increasingly software-based, and any software is subject to change in the future

What is Quectel’s role in this space?

We are typically in a Tier 2 position, talking with the integrators for the automotive industry. That is sometimes the automaker, if it decides to handle the advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) technology on its own. This is often the case in the electric vehicle (EV) segment, and we are working with several partners here. We also work with the typical Tier 1s active in telematics or ADAS. What we deliver is experience in connectivity. Our products are cellular modules with certain functionalities, which could include cellular vehicle-to-everything. We also deliver the positioning modules for GNSS, which becomes increasingly important with ADAS applications.

Does 5G represent a natural evolution from 4G or more of a step change?

It’s more of a step change. 4G is based in the classic GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) world. In addition, it was supporting functionalities like LTE and the old circuit-switched modes. In a way, 5G throws the traditional stuff overboard. That may not be the case with the current release, but from release 16 onwards you will see that you need less and less backward compatibility with the old standards.

What sort of regional differences might we see with the network rollout?

Europe and North America already have strong 4G networks, but the Chinese network operators did not follow all the LTE-A roadmap with the various user equipment (UE) categories: nine, 12 and 16. As a result, the bandwidth is comparably narrow at the moment, with most regions covered by category four, and only in limited areas category six. For China, it would be a significant upgrade. In Europe and North America, the main impact initially will be around latency. That means being sure that data will reach the car in a short time. This is important for different assistance applications, like remote drive and ADAS features.

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Today’s robotaxi fleets operate without the benefit of 5G
Do you regard 5G as a technical requirement for autonomous vehicles or simply an accelerator?

It depends on the level of autonomous driving. For a fully self-driving vehicle, it is a technical necessity. In order for these cars to navigate, you need to have super exact high-definition (HD) maps, and the maps must be up to date all the time. For example, when an area of construction pops up along the highway, the map must reflect that—and quickly. This is only possible if you have a continuous exchange with the vehicle, with the necessary bandwidth.

Are there serious risks that come from relying on 5G for safety-critical automotive systems?

To start with, it is important that the hardware and software follow certain automotive security standards. As for the networks, they will always have some weak points. There are days when the network breaks down, even with very good network operators, due to mistakes in the rollout of new network cells. None of the more safety critical vehicle applications will fully rely on a network in order to operate.

Do you have any concerns about potential network strain?

Not really. I am currently more worried about how the 5G rollout will influence the availability of old technologies. That will be not homogenous in all regions. For example, the US was one of the first to delete and re-farm the 3G network. That did not happen in Europe until now to such an extent, and it shows that we don’t have a homogenous change mechanism across the world. Given that a car is probably used a little bit longer than a smartphone, that brings a different type of challenge, namely how to keep it operating in the cellular world as long as possible.

There have been some suggestions that cellular transmitters might have a harmful impact on human health. Does 5G introduces any fresh concerns on this front?

The spectrum is wider. We are talking as well about millimetre wave in release 16 for a super subset of data transmission. Because we are still in a low power transmission, I don’t share the view of some people who are criticising the network technology. However, I think we can forecast that discussions will resurface with the bigger spectrum.