By Mike Montgomery
It’s been six years since Nevada became the first state to allow self-driving cars. Since 2012, we have seen an additional twenty-one states pass legislation related to autonomous vehicles – including several bills in California.
While autonomous technology is still largely in its infancy, we’re still a long way from the imagined future of people sitting back and reading the paper while their car drives them to work.
In addition to the obvious convenience-oriented benefits, there are serious safety and economic implications tied to self-driving cars. In 2016 alone, 40,000 people died in motor vehicle accidents – with distracted driving or human error being the top cause. According to a report from Strategy Analytics, driverless-vehicles could save an estimated 585,000 lives.
Saving lives and limiting traffic accidents are undoubtedly the biggest benefits of autonomous technology, but the economic benefits can’t be ignored. The same report from Strategy Analytics, noted that autonomous vehicles could become a $7 trillion industry by 2050 and could save as much as 250 million hours of commuting time around the globe.
Considering the massive benefits of self-driving vehicles, the natural question becomes, “where do we currently stand?”
In short, we have seen some progress over the past 6 years. Today, a driverless eight-passenger van is making the rounds of downtown Las Vegas, and similar shuttles are popping up around the country. Uber is testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh and Waymo, a Google spinoff, is offering self-driving taxi rides in Phoenix.
However, there are still more than a handful of barriers to broad deployment.
Let’s start with the less concerning reason – public perception. The self-driving car industry isn’t developing at the anticipated pace, at least in part, due to consumer angst. A recent AAA survey showed that 73% of American drivers say they would be too scared to ride in an autonomous vehicle, up from 63% a year ago. The uptick in apprehension is likely due to some recent high-profile mishaps, but overall the mistrust of the new technology is largely emotional and not data driven. Nonetheless, this is still an issue facing the industry.
Writing in Fortune, Eric Ellis of consulting firm Kotter, says that in order to overcome this reluctance, autonomous car companies have to slowly earn peoples’ trust. And while most people may not acknowledge it, we are already giving more control to our cars through lane departure assist, blind spot detection and self-parking features.
It is likely that autonomous vehicles will follow a similar adoption and perception cycle as the smart phone. When Steve Jobs released the first iPhone 11 years ago, there was no shortage of skeptics. Most infamously, former Microsoft CEO and current Clippers owner, Steve Ballmer said of the iPhone, “[t]here’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.” Much to Ballmer and other skeptic’s dismay, by 2011, 35% of the population owned a smart phone and today a whopping 77% of the population uses a smart phone.
This leads us to the bigger problem — our communications infrastructure needs to be modernized. Specifically, we must deploy next generation wireless infrastructure to support the colossal amount of data required to power autonomous vehicles. For self-driving cars to be able to react appropriately, they must have instant access to information about the environment and be able to share and receive information with other self-driving cars on the road. The average autonomous vehicle will use around 4,000 GB of data a day.
While today’s 4G network can support a small amount of these vehicles, self-driving cars cannot be deployed at scale until our networks are made much denser, and ultimately transition from 4G to 5G. Obviously, having a self-driving car “buffer” or “lag” like a video download on a mobile device is not an option.
Infrastructure upgrades, particularly network densification via small cells underpinned by high-capacity fiber optic cable, are crucial to making our autonomous future a reality. You see, small cells will serve as the backbone and fiber will serve as the life-blood for future wireless networks such as 5G. According to tests conducted by technology giant Qualcomm, 5G will be 20 times faster, support 100 times the network capacity and reduce end-to-end latency by 10 times. This type of speed and efficiency provided by 5G is the key to the future of self-driving cars.
However, small cell and fiber deployment, much like autonomous vehicle progress, is not happening fast enough. The reality is, we will need thousands of small cells connected by thousands of route miles of fiber for our mobile networks to reach their full potential.
Prioritizing communications infrastructure buildout now is not only fundamental to speeding the adoption of self-driving cars, but enabling countless innovation that stand to make our communities smarter and safer through the power of 5G.